69 A.D.: It didn’t take long: one day after entering Rome, the Roman Senate declares Vespian Emperor of the Roman Empire, the fourth one in The Year of Four Emperors.
72 A.D.: Traditional date for the martyrdom of the apostle Thomas, who spent his life after the Resurrection traveling east from the Roman Empire, spending twenty years introducing Christianity to the people of India.
336AD: First recorded celebration of the Christmas feast, 3 years after Emperor Constantine’s conversion to the faith.
1066: Two and a half months after his decisive victory at the Battle of Hastings, and with no viable English opposition to halt his plundering progress from the Channel coast up to London, William the Conqueror is crowned king of England by the Archbishop of Canterbury in London’s Westminster Abbey.
1118: Birth of Thomas Beckett (d.1170), Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 until his murder in 1170. He is venerated as a saint and martyr by both the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion. He engaged in conflict with Henry II, King of England, over the rights and privileges of the Church and was murdered by followers of the king in Canterbury Cathedral. Soon after his death, he was canonised by Pope Alexander III.
1466: Death of the great Renaissance sculptor, Donatello (b.1386). He was one of the earliest of the Renaissance masters to embrace and perfect a free-form naturalism in his statuary, and is also noted for his effective use of visual rhythm and perspective in his bas-relief works.
1492: Christopher Columbus’ flagship, the carrack Santa Maria, runs aground on a reef off the coast of Haiti close to Cap Haitien. The wreck was a classic case of poor watch-standing; with the captain himself having been up for two full days, he retired to his cabin to get some sleep on the calm night. His helmsmen decided to catch a few winks himself after the captain went below, and ordered a young cabin boy to steer for a while. A classic lack of skill, lack of seaman’s eye, shifting (light) winds and (not light) currents, and crunch- Santa Maria is hard aground with a broken keel and sprung planking. All the crew makes it ashore before the ship breaks up during the day.
1545: Opening prayers at the Council of Trent, called by Pope Paul III in response to the very real and increasingly virulent calls for administrative and spiritual reform within the Roman Catholic Church. The proximate trigger for the Council was the steady growth of the Protestant Reformation, which expanded dramatically after the 1517 publication of Luther’s 95 Theses. The political and spiritual arguments of the Reformation forced the Roman Curia to confront and answer a number of serious and sometimes threatening criticisms to its hitherto iron-clad rule over European Christianity. The Council lasted for 18 years, and created new administrative controls over the Church, and more importantly, confirmed and clarified Roman Catholicism’s core beliefs and traditions. The Council’s edicts remained essentially untouched until the First Vatican Council in 1870, and with modifications only at the margins, they remain central to Roman Catholic teachings to this day.
1577: Nearly a month after seeking shelter in Cornwall from battering storms, Sir Francis Drake sets out again from Plymouth with a fleet of four ships on a voyage of plunder, exploration, discovery and mapping that would eventually take them completely around the globe.
1620: After five weeks of surveying the shoreline of Cape Cod Bay, the Pilgrims come ashore at Plymouth Rock to begin their first permanent settlement. The group split their time between the building parties ashore and recuperating aboard the Mayflower, with no fewer than 20 men kept always ashore for defensive purposes. The plan was viable, but this first winter in the New World was brutal, with exposure, scurvy and other diseases claiming nearly half of the settlers who survived the treacherous voyage to their new life.
1635: Death of Samuel de Champlain (b.1567), French soldier, draftsman, cartographer and explorer of France’s New World territories; Founded Quebec City in 1603, continued to explore and map the Great Lakes and Saint Lawrence River, and established a tight web of trading relationships with the various Indian tribes of the upper Mississippi watershed. You correctly recognize that that long, beautiful waterway between Vermont & NY is named after him. One of the Greats from the Great Age of Exploration.
1783: In an unprecedented demonstration of self-abnegation, General George Washington resigns his commission as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, an act that stunned the aristocracy of Europe, and caused none other than King George III to declare him “the greatest character of the age” because of it. The event was memorialized by a massive portrait by the great John Trumbull, which now hangs in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.
1809: Birth of legendary frontiersman, trapper, Indian fighter, scout and soldier, Kit Carson.
1814: British and American diplomats sign the Treaty of Ghent, formally ending the War of 1812. The terms of the agreement essentially return the belligerents to the status quo ante bellum, which reinforces the notion that this two-year long conflict, never politically popular nor strategically coherent, really was a wasted effort in lost political will, lost commerce, and lives. On the positive side, the US naval victories at sea and the astonishing victory at the Battle of New Orleans convinced Britain that although they need not become close allies with the United States, they now respected us as legitimate power players on the international stage.
1826: Over a third, of the Corps of Cadets at the United States Military Academy flaunted the school’s rules against consumption of alcohol in a level of binge drinking that earned an actual place in history as The Eggnog Riot. One of the participants, who was not one of the court-martial-ees, was the future President of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis.
1862: Demonstrating the essence of his phenomenal lack of imagination, General Ambrose Burnside orders the Union Army of the Potomac to cross the Rappahannock River at the Battle of Fredericksburg and make a frontal assault across a mile of open ground against elevated and fortified Confederate positions on Marye’s Heights just south of town. When darkness fell, the Confederate positions were un-moved, and the field below the heights was littered with Union dead and wounded, punctuated by the groans of the latter, writhing in agony throughout the cold winter night. The Union slaughter is the most lopsided in the entire course of the war, 12,653 (1,284 killed) to the Confederate 5,377 (608 killed). Richmond papers are jubilant. Washington DC is wracked with disgust at both Burnside and Lincoln. Burnside is cashiered from command a month later, but he will twice re-appear- prominently- as the war grinds on.
1868: President Andrew Johnson grants an unconditional amnesty to all former Confederate soldiers.
1872: Under the sponsorship and direction of the Royal Society, HMS Challenger sets sail from Portsmouth to begin a three year, 70,000 mile voyage of science and discovery. Unlike previous expeditions during the great age of discovery in the centuries prior, this expedition was designed around specific oceanographic scientific research that could answer questions about what lay below the depths of the lead line. The effort was staggering. Wikipedia summarized it as: “492 deep sea soundings, 133 bottom dredges, 151 open water trawls and 263 serial water temperature observations were taken. Also about 4,700 new species of marine life were discovered.”
1878: Birth of Louis Chevrolet (d.1941), Swiss-American race car driver and businessman.
1905: Birth of movie mogul, aircraft designer, pilot, businessman and legendary eccentric, Howard Hughes
1913: President Woodrow Wilson signs into law the Federal Reserve Act, which establishes the Federal Reserve, creating a U.S. Central bank. The “long title” of the law, helpfully included with the Wikipedia entry, reads: “An Act to provide for the establishment of Federal reserve banks, to furnish an elastic currency, to afford means of rediscounting commercial paper, to establish a more effective supervision of banking in the United States, and for other purposes.”
1914: Five months into the widely spreading combat of the Great War, and just weeks after completing the “Race to the Sea” that established a continuous line of trenches from the Swiss border to the North Sea, on this Christmas Eve, soldiers from both sides of the trenches find themselves singing Christmas carols to each other, and then tentatively, but with increasingly greater frequency, climbing out of their trenches under an unofficial truce to exchange cigarettes and small gifts with soldiers from the other side. Christmas Day saw a generalized truce that saw not only light fraternization, but also several episodes of soccer games between British and German soldiers in No Man’s Land. The Christmas Truce was a completely spontaneous and un-authorized pause in the fighting that the soldiers who were there remembered for the rest of their lives. In subsequent years, particularly after the shocking bloodletting and gas attacks of 1915, there was little need for the commanders on both sides to remind their soldiers that their job was to kill, not socialize with, the enemy on the other side of the trenches.
1923: Birth of Vice Admiral James Stockdale (d.2005), one of the Navy’s greats, whose life defined both the glory and the agony of our country’s Vietnam experience. He was flying one of the two F-8s dueling with North Vietnamese patrol boats during the first Gulf of Tonkin event, and was again overhead when the destroyers USS Maddox & Turner Joy were blazing away at the empty ocean two nights later during an event President Johnson used to justify a massive expansion of the US military engagement in that benighted country. Stockdale was shot down over the North in September of 1965, and was quickly recognized as a uniquely effective leader by both his POW peers and their North Vietnamese captors. The distinction earned him exceptional levels of beatings and torture; his resistance and strength of character under extraordinary duress became a touchstone for all of us in Naval Aviation. His keen intellect and moral integrity allowed him to remain on active duty, despite the lingering physical limitations from his imprisonment, and advanced him to the rank of Vice Admiral and Presidency of the Naval War College. His public life ended on something of a sour note, when Ross Perot asked him to run as Vice President in his third party stab during the 1992 election. Never an actual politician, at the first Vice Presidential debate with Al Gore and Dan Quayle, the moderator asked him to introduce himself. Stockdale smiled and said, “Who am I? Why am I here?” a rhetorical device designed to lead to follow on explanations, but the levity that surrounded those questions, and his verbal fumbles later in the debate, made him appear to be a bumbling old man, instead of the towering intellect and brilliant leader he actually was
1937: Japanese forces finally expel defending the defending Chinese army from the port city of Nanking, and immediately commence an orgy of destruction over the next week that reduces the city and its population to mere subsistence. The terror quickly became known as The Rape of Nanking, and was one of the particular causes of the increasing friction between the Japanese Empire and the United States.
1937: Opening night for Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the world’s first full length animated feature.
1938: In South Africa, discovery and documentation of the first “modern” coelacanth, a fossil fish long believed to be extinct. It wasn’t, and isn’t still. The story of its re-discovery is a terrific fish tale, blending the somewhat obscure disciplines of paleontology and ichthyology.
1941: Continuing the “civilized” world’s descent into World War, Hungary and Romania declare war on the United States.
1941: Admiral Chester Nimitz arrives in Hawaii to take command of what’s left of the still-smoldering Pacific Fleet of the United States Navy.
1943: American General Dwight D. Eisenhower is named Supreme Commander for the Allied invasion of Normandy. Ike’s extraordinary skills in planning and diplomacy with the fractious British and French allies were the key to creating a success from this incredibly complex operation.
1946: Birth of song man Jimmy Buffet, whose music provides the soundtrack to approximately 98.86% of the boating world’s after-event mixers and into-the-evening experiments of increasingly creative means of ingesting Caribbean rum drinks.
1948: Birth of guitarist Jeff Baxter, formerly of Steely Dan and the Dooby Brothers.
1968: Launch of U.S. astronauts Frank Borman, Bill Anders and James Lovell aboard Apollo 8, the first manned mission to leave the gravitational control of the earth. Two and a half hours and three orbits after launch, Borman re-ignites the third stage (S-IVB) of the Saturn V rocket for a flawless Trans-Lunar Injection, beginning the two and a half day voyage to the Moon.
1968: Three days after making their trans-lunar injection (TLI) rocket firing, the astronauts of Apollo 8 fire their Service Module’s main engine and enter a stable lunar orbit. If you were sentient at the time, you will remember the stunning live color TV transmission* from the Command Module, when we earth-bound travelers witnessed with the astronauts the first “earth rise” over the limb of our celestial partner, punctuated with breathtaking poignancy as Mission Commander Frank Bormann read the opening verses of the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…” Jim Lovell and Bill Anders took turns with subsequent readings of the Creation story, closing with, “…and from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you – all of you on the good Earth.“
1968 : After 20 hours in orbit around the Moon, the crew of Apollo 8 fires its service module main engine** to perform a trans-earth injection burn, putting the craft onto the perilous trajectory back to our home planet. It is probably worth repeating: the re-entry window from the lunar orbit to the earth’s atmosphere is a mere 2.5 degrees. Anything less than that, and the capsule will skip off the outer fringes of the atmosphere to be lost in an indefinite solar orbit; any more than that would cause massive deceleration and structural failure, with the re-entry heat completely consuming the capsule and crew.
1970: The north tower of the World Trade Center is topped off at 1,368 feet, making it the tallest building in the world.
1977: Death of Charlie Chaplin (b.1889) One of the first “superstars” of the movie era, he parlayed his successes in silent movies into a controlling stake in the new United Artists studio (along with D.W. Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford). His transition to the “talkies” began with the political satire The Great Dictator, in which he closes with a direct dialog encouraging theater goers to oppose national fascism. His leftist leanings thus exposed, his position became untenable after the 1947 release of Monsieur Verdeux, which led to outright accusations of being a communist. When he left for a London premier in September, 1952, the U.S. Attorney General revoked his return visa, putting Chaplin into a comfortable but still controversial exile in Switzerland, where he lived out the rest of his life with his wife Oona and their 8 children.
1986: In an aircraft designed and built by his brother Burt, pilot Dick Rutan and co-pilot Jeanna Yeager land their flying machine at Edwards AFB, completing an un-refueled circumnavigation of the world over the course of 9 days, 3 minutes and 44 seconds. Total distance traveled (after their 14,500 foot takeoff roll (yes)) was 26,366 statute miles, breaking the previous record set by a B-52 in 1962.