History sucks. Ugh, so many wars. And dates to memorize. Oh man, remember slavery? Boo. Boo! Even the good stuff, like defeating the Nazis, had to follow some horrific event, like the rise of the Nazis. But if you dig deep enough, you can find a few heartwarming stories buried in history's cold murky depths. Stories like ...
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s death was a terrible blow to the Civil Rights Movement, and the world has been worse off without him. But we can at least take comfort in knowing that he enjoyed most of his last day on Earth. Andrew Young, future congressman and friend of King's, was returning to his hotel room from a day arguing in favor of a worker's strike in court. When he arrived, King and his friend Ralph Abernathy ambushed Young with pillows. In what Young later described as an "exhilarating" moment, the two of them knocked the crap of him with pillows. Really picture that: the eternally stoic Martin Luther King Jr. swinging a pillow into a man's chest and trying not to giggle so hard he snorts.
They got ready for dinner, still joking and laughing. It would be the last time they would see King alive. Young went to the parking lot to wait for King. He shadowboxed with James Orange, King's assistant, in the parking lot while they waited. King was assassinated on the balcony. But he didn't die alone or unhappy; he died after a full day with his friends, joking and laughing and acting out the best moments of a tween sleepover.
The city of Belfast in Northern Ireland was a key target for the German Blitz during WWII. People grew concerned about the Belfast Zoo, only a few bombs away from unleashing a nightmarish combination of polar bears, wolves, hyenas, and tigers. Figuring that Nazi forces were enough to deal with without factoring tigers into the mix, Belfast police began exterminating the dangerous animals before they could escape. It was ... not an ideal situation.
Zookeeper Denise Weston Austin wasn't about to accept that s**t, so she pulled off a daring elephant heist. Every night during the 1941 Blitz, Austin would take an elephant calf named Shiela to her house, hide it in her tall-walled garden, and smuggle the calf back into the zoo each morning. She apparently had her Sneak skill leveled up to 100, because she was never caught.
The elephant lived well into the 1960s, and Austin herself died in 1997, never revealing that she was the mysterious local "elephant angel." She was only identified in 2009, when the zoo launched a public appeal for information about the story for their 75th anniversary. The tale has already inspired a children's book, and there's even a feature film planned for the end of 2017. If there's not at least one scene in which an elephant picks up a Nazi with its trunk, we're demanding our money back.
In 1913, Norway presented the Edinburgh Zoo with their first King penguin. It was a symbolic gesture that represented Norway being the first nation to reach the South Pole. (Which they chose to brag about in a Scottish zoo, for some reason?) In 1972, the Norwegian King's Guard adopted a penguin from the zoo, named him Nils Olav, and made him their mascot.
Thus began the tradition of promoting Nils every time they returned to the zoo. By 1982, the penguin was a corporal. He became a sergeant in 1987. Nils died that year, but his legacy lived on through Nils Olav II, who retained the rank and titles of the original Nils (because that's the type of wacky s**t that happens in a monarchy). Nils continued to climb through the ranks until 2008, when King Harald V visited the zoo and a goddamn penguin became a knight.
Cut to 2017, and Nils Olav III is now a knight and a brigadier. On top of being a member of Norwegian nobility, his position as brigadier technically allows him to command several thousand men. If Norway continues to hold up this tradition every time a delegation visits the zoo, the penguin will eventually become the supreme commander of Norway's entire army. After a few hundred more years, he will become PENGOTHAR, Immortal Ruler of Space and Time.
The Mayan civilization is best remembered for making calendars, but they had a few other things going in their time. They dabbled in human sacrifice, warfare, slavery, and some light religious beekeeping. Yes, the Mayans kept stingless honeybees, which make a sweet liquid honey. They used the honey for religious ceremonies, medicinal purposes, and an alcoholic drink called balche. Take it from us, calendars are way more fun if you're wasted on bee liquor.
The bees were so prized that Mayans treated them as sacred. They handled the bees with great care, and if one became honey-soaked, they dried it and set it free. The happiest part of this symbiotic relationship was that if any bees died during the honey gathering process, they were wrapped in a leaf and given a tiny individual bee burial. Remember: This is the same culture that practiced human sacrifice via disembowelment and Indiana Jones-style heart extraction. After they watched the life fade out of a virgin girl's eyes, they gently kissed a bee goodnight.
Veliky Novgorod is a city in western Russia. Founded around 859 CE, it still exists today. Buried under the streets of Novgorod are thousands of artifacts from its long history, most notable of which are the birch bark documents that medieval Russians used in place of paper. These documents are well-preserved, due to the "magical mud" of the city. Officials say "Novgorod for Russia is like Pompeii for Italy."
One of the reasons these birch bark documents are so special is that they offer a charming insight into mundane medieval life. One 14th-century record is simply a shopping list. It ends with the author signing off "If I am alive, I will pay for it." It might have been a joke. It might have just been Russia.
What really steals the show in this collection? Doodles from a schoolchild named Onfim. Historians date his works to around 1260, and he's believed to have been around six or seven years old at the time. Here's a picture Onfim drew of himself as a heroic knight, slaying an enemy:
Onfim originals span from Bible verses to portraits of himself and his dad. This collection of ancient doodles, buried in the mud for almost 800 years, shows that kids have always been kids, even during some of the worst eras in human history. Knights, fire-breathing monsters, and hands that look like big forks are all quintessential childhood experiences, no matter the century.
James Freeth is on Twitter
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