When it comes to history, it can be difficult to get a real sense of scale, like when you learn that the last surviving Civil War widow died in 2008. History is like that -- things we assume were left in the distant past have a way of lingering on, decades or centuries longer than you'd have thought. For example ...
#5. The Last American Execution by Firing Squad Was in 2010
If there is one thing humans have been especially good at throughout history, it's coming up with increasingly more efficient ways to execute people. As time progressed, crucifixion gave way to the guillotine, the guillotine gave way to hanging, hanging gave way to the firing squad, and the firing squad gave way to the electric chair. In recent decades, Old Sparky has lost out to chemical injection as the most popular method of removing the most unsociable of us from the mortal realm. It's just so much more civilized to treat it like a medical procedure, rather than, say, straight up shooting a dude.
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Though the idea of a win-and-you're-free deathmatch with a bear has been steadily gaining support.
But Actually ...
Despite the forward march of execution technology, it's only been about four years since the last firing squad execution was carried out in America.
In Utah, those sentenced to the death penalty had their choice of execution method from a list of options (you can't choose "be kicked into a jet engine by Steven Seagal"). This tradition technically ended in 2004, when the firing squad was officially outlawed in favor of lethal injection as the go-to technique for reducing the population of death row, but a caveat in the rule stated that anyone who received a death sentence before then was still permitted to choose to go out in a hail of gunfire.
It just has a certain flair to it, on top of giving you a good setup for your last words.
Double murderer Ronnie Lee Gardner, who was sentenced to death for murdering a lawyer while trying to escape trial for a previous murder, was the only guy since that ruling to decide that being shot to death was somehow better than dying peacefully in his sleep. And so, after sitting on death row for 25 years, Gardner was strapped to a chair and had a target painted over his heart, and five officers who volunteered to be a part of history were equipped with old school .30 caliber Winchesters. In line with tradition, one was loaded with blanks so that none of them could feel guilty (or on the other hand, brag) about being the one who fired the kill shot.
Although Gardner was one of only three people executed by firing squad since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, there's a chance it might soon make a comeback due to a recent shortage of drugs that is pushing states to find new ways of disposing of criminals. Of course, we could go back to the electric chair, but shit, prisons have to pay power bills, too, and besides that, they've probably been traumatized after watching The Green Mile.
Leading to exploding mouse populations in prisons.
#4. Chernobyl Kept Running Until December 2000
In 1986, the worst (accidental) nuclear incident in history at the time occurred when the Chernobyl nuclear plant decided to spit radiation over a good portion of the Ukrainian countryside and create an iconic Call of Duty level in the process. Since then, the region has been an abandoned, irradiated wasteland, overgrown with weeds and probably mutated rats or some shit. The plant itself is probably nothing more than a sprawling, silent complex with a big-ass crater in the center.
But Actually ...
Not only did the Chernobyl plant survive the meltdown, but it was business as usual for over a decade afterward. The world's most notoriously explosive power plant continued providing energy until December of 2000.
But unlike those Ruskie quitters, Three Mile Island is still going strong! U-S-A! U-S-A!
Though the popular impression is that the Chernobyl disaster was a Hiroshima-scale event, it was really just one reactor that was affected, and then it was less an atomic explosion than it was an atomic crop dusting. The other three reactors were just fine after the incident, and given that Eastern Europe still needed power to watch Wheel of Fortune and whatever crazy bear-wrestling game shows they have over there, the technicians continued to run the place for almost 14 more years. To keep the lethal radiation enclosed (and to ensure no one else gained mutant superpowers), a gigantic steel and concrete sarcophagus was placed around the ruined reactor, and from there it was just the same 9-to-5 as it had always been.
It was only after much international scrutiny spearheaded by Bill Clinton that the United States pledged $78 million to help Ukraine close down that nightmare factory and repair the structure that protects the rest of the world from its horrors. In December 2000, former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma appeared on television and announced the closing of the plant, at which point chief Chernobyl technician and consonant hoarder Oleksandr Yelchishchev turned the switch that would see the permanent termination of the plant's unholy existence.
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The switch itself was rather anticlimactic.
Kuchma's address appeared to lament the premature closure of the plant, which seems odd, because it did run for over a decade after, y'know, killing all those people and irradiating over 1,000 square miles of land for the foreseeable future.
#3. The Last Battle Between Sailing Vessels Was in World War II
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Before people discovered how to build ships that ran under their own power, naval battles from the dawn of civilization had always been decided on the whim of whichever direction God decided to blow wind on their sails. Considering that we've had boats powered by actual engines since the Industrial Revolution, you'd assume that by the time World War II rolled around that nobody was out there fighting Master and Commander style. This was, after all, a conflict featuring tanks, stealth bombers, and goddamn nuclear weapons.
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And missiles from outer space.
But Actually ...
Not only did history's last battle between sailing vessels happen in World War II, but it was actually the final naval battle of the war, occurring shortly after the Japanese had surrendered but before all of the Japanese had received the memo. It was late in August 1945, and having been given notice that the war had ended, U.S. Navy Lieutenants Livingston Swentzel and Stuart Pittman were on their way home via China. They weren't making the journey by battleship, but instead commanded two Chinese junks.
If you haven't seen Pirates of the Caribbean, a junk looks like this:
"Junk" is being kind.
On August 20, the two were probably wondering what they did to get stuck with this shitty assignment on their measly sailing ships when suddenly they came across yet another sailing ship that was acting suspiciously. It turned out to be a Japanese vessel, and when it saw the Americans very slowly approaching, they gradually turned around and, after several minutes of slow motion suspense, opened fire, kicking off the last sailing battle the world will probably ever see until Kevin Costner's Waterworld becomes real.
Pittman, realizing that his day just got much more exciting than expected, responded by opening fire with all weapons he had on board, to which the Japanese responded in kind. Discovering he had a bazooka, Pittman ordered his ship within 100 meters to fire it onto the enemy ship. Three bazooka hits later, the Japanese still continued to fight on, and Pittman ended the battle as any movie-quality sailing battle should end: with a hostile boarding. He maneuvered his ship next to the Japanese one and gave the one order all Navy officers secretly hope to yell: "Prepare to board!"
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A controversy later arose as to whether the lack of rope swinging constituted a proper boarding.
Pittman personally led the charge onto the enemy ship for vicious hand-to-hand combat with guns, bayonets, and a freaking meat cleaver. The battle continued until the Japanese surrendered, with 43 dead and 39 captured. And as of yet, Hollywood has somehow still neglected to make a movie out of this whole thing.