If you've ever fallen asleep in history class during medieval grain tariffs day, you know that history is often a bit ... serious. Yes, that's the polite word for it. But it turns out that even the most, uh, portentous (another polite word!) historical events all come with goofy little moments and bits of slapstick. You simply have to know where to look ...
International diplomacy is a dangerous tightrope, and one slip can mean the geopolitical equivalent of a broken neck (nukes, lots of nukes). So when your strongest ally offers you a gift of friendship, you accept it no matter the circumstances.
Even if that gift is a reindeer.
And you're in a submarine.
During the early days of World War II, the British sub HMS Trident was fighting a bitter and cold battle against Germans in the Arctic Circle. This was greatly appreciated by the local Soviet Navy, which hadn't had any backup since the start of the war. One day, the story goes, a Soviet admiral was talking to the Trident's captain, whose wife had complained to him about plowing the snow back home. The admiral replied, "You need a reindeer!" Much laughter was had, until the admiral presented the submarine with an actual reindeer as a ceremonial gift. The Brits, being as eminently British as possible, politely accepted and, not knowing what to do, proceeded to push their gift through the torpedo hole.
Little reindeer Pollyanna (named after the sub's base) lived with the Trident's crew for the next six weeks, consuming her share of moss, condensed milk, and oxygen, even knocking the sailors aside when it was time to resurface for air. But despite her diva tendencies, the crew grew to love that crazy beast, and the captain even let her sleep under his bed.
Eventually, despite Pollyanna eating the navigation chart, the Trident made it safely back to England. Unfortunately, her cushy life of condensed milk and zero exercise meant she had gotten too big to smoothly exit through the torpedo hole, though a winch and a sailor with a broom managed to Winnie the Pooh her out. Pollyanna was then honorably discharged from the Navy and accepted into the London Zoo, where she spent the rest of life shocking the other zoo animals with her gritty war stories.
When the Berlin Wall fell, generations of Germans were finally reunited after decades of separation. And when East Germans wandered into the West, still adjusting to a country both familiar yet foreign, they had but one question: "Where the hell are the bananas?"
While communism really nailed the basics, delivering luxury products to the huddled masses wasn't really in East Germany's wheelhouse. And that was bad news for banana-loving East Germans, as their only source was Vietnam. And any Vietnamese bananas that eventually made their way to the GDR were so brown and dry that they might as well have eaten the crates they came in.
But once the Iron Curtain came down, crowds of enthusiastic Eastern visitors quickly discovered that both the grass and the bananas were greener on the other side. For years, it became common to see former East Germans line up at grocery stores just to buy bananas. And for these brown-averse citizens, the less ripe the banana, the better. In fact, their obsession with green bananas became a great source of amusement for the banana-jaded Westerners.
Even after the Yellow Craze passed, Germans still joked that East Germans didn't revolt for democracy, but for bananas, calling the German Reunification "the banana revolution." There's even a German saying inspired by it -- whenever there's a big line, it's common to joke "Are they handing out bananas or what?" Who says Germans don't have a sense of humor? East Germans, we imagine.
Because it lay on the border between German-controlled Tanzania and British Malawi back in the early 20th century, Lake Nyasa (now Lake Malawi) needed a naval presence from both sides. The unlucky fools assigned to that boring job were British Commander Edmund Rhoades and German Captain Berndt, who together pointlessly patrolled their pond for over a decade. Over that period, the two became good friends, and would spend many a night drinking together.
But when England declared war on Germany in August 1914, the two drinking buddies suddenly found themselves on opposite sides of a massive conflict. Rhoades was the first to receive the news, so he did the honorable thing and launched a sneak attack on his old friend. Twist! Sailing out in the HMS Gwendolen, he opened fire on Berndt's SS Hermann von Wissmann, which at the time was docked for repairs. A single volley disabled the ship, at which point Berndt jumped in a lifeboat, paddled up to the attacking ship, and shouted, "God damn, Rhoades, are you drunk?"
With his enemy completely at his mercy, Rhoades ... invited Berndt onto his ship to explain his ruse. Double twist! Instead of formally engaging in a horrific battle, Rhoades had figured a quick sneak attack would mean their part of the war would be over and done with before happy hour. The pair made an arrangement: Rhoades would "confiscate" Berndt's gun, and Berndt would "agree to disagree" on the whole "captured" thing. And so, only hours into the war, Lake Nyasa was done fighting, and the two captains resumed their comfortable routine. The war was important and all, but it was hardly worth staying sober for.
In 1961, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin climbed into an eight-foot capsule called Vostock 1 and became the first Graduated Monkey to ever visit space. And then, when he returned, he became the first alien encounter for a bunch of scared farmers.
Seeing as they didn't entirely expect him back, and that the computers which launched Gagarin into space were less powerful than a Game Boy Color, the cosmonaut's landing zone was basically "most of Northeastern Europe." Also, instead of softly landing with his pod like his spoiled NASA counterparts, Gagarin had to parachute out of the crashing metal tomb once inside the Earth's atmosphere.
During descent, his capsule began to spin, and Gagarin nearly lost consciousness before ejecting. He then parachuted down to Earth over a village called Saratov, where the people had no idea a man had just gone to space, let alone that they were his welcoming committee. The first people to see the very disoriented spaceman were a farmer named Anna Takhtarova and her granddaughter Rita. She was busy farming potatoes when Gagarin strolled up, still in his orange space suit with a full helmet covering his face. When he approached, the pair freaked out, but Gagarin remained calm and informed them that he was Soviet and had just come from space -- which is exactly what an alien would say.
General George S. Patton is what would happen if you gave a field commission to a live grenade. During the First World War, he served in France, using these newfangled doodads called "tanks." Patton was good at tanks. In fact, he was so good at tanks that he was asked to start his own Tank School near a French village called Bourg.
One day, Patton received a visit from the mayor of Bourg, who wished to know which of Patton's soldiers had just died. This surprised Patton, because it was one of those rare times when things weren't dying all around him. Asking the poor soldier's name, the mayor told Patton to follow him to the fresh grave dug near town. When they arrived to inspect the soldier's remains, Patton found out that the grave in fact held the remains of all of his soldiers. It was a closed-up latrine.
How did the people of Bourg mistake a toilet for a grave? Quite logically, it turned out. The soldier who had closed up the shit pit had marked the site with a warning sign attached to two sticks which looked very much like a graveyard cross. Bizarrely, Patton never bothered to inform the people of Bourg that they were mourning a toilet.
But the story doesn't end there. In 1944, when Patton returned to France for Round 2, his convoy passed through Bourg once again. He was given "a triumphal procession of all the village armed with pitchforks, scythes, and rakes." And wouldn't you know it, the latrine marker was still there, maintained by the locals with all the respect due to a fallen soldier. This is either inspiring or insane; we can't decide which. Either way, it's still an appropriate legacy for Patton.
Being the ruler of a country is a challenging job, especially when your subjects hate you so much that they invented the guillotine just to put you under it. That was the case for poor dumb Louis XVI, who suddenly had a great need to drop his crown, put on a cloak, and sneak out of his own country. But it turns out it's kind of hard to stay incognito if everyone has a bunch of pictures of you in their wallets.
As the French Revolution took a turn for the regicidal, Louis and his wife Marie Antoinette decided to retreat from one giant palace to a slightly smaller giant palace in the countryside. In order to get away unnoticed, the lavish royal couple prepared the perfect disguises: They would pretend to be people who worked for a living. Marie pretended to be a Russian governess, and the king a lowly valet, while the royal princes were all dressed as girls. It's tough to maintain dignity while fleeing for your life.
But the king and queen were such inept conspirators that they'd barely made it out of the city before the alarm was raised. Still, they had their brilliant disguises, and were sure none of the commoners on the way had ever seen them before. But one postmaster thought he remembered the royal beauty Marie Antoinette from his time in the army. And to check his suspicion that this was indeed the king and queen, all he had to do was pull out a 50 and confirm that this weird-looking servant guy was on his money.
The postmaster hurried ahead and warned the local authorities, who stopped the royals' carriage. But they still weren't sure this was the real deal. They then brought in an old man who used to live near the palace, and the story goes that he took one look at the "valet" and his knees instinctively buckled to bow before his king. That was all the proof the authorities needed, the royal family was arrested, and the next time anyone saw Louis XVI's head in profile, it was lying in a basket.
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