Rock visionary Steve Miller once wrote that "Time keeps on slipping into the future." He couldn't have been more correct. Time is, in fact, barreling like a son of a gun toward the end of the millennium, a mere three years into the future. The countdown has begun, and Something Big is going to happen.
California will fall into the sea. Jesus will reappear. The polar ice cap will melt. The ultimate war between good and evil will be waged. I will turn 37.
The media are making sure that you are aware of these horrible, fantastic potentialities; the year 2000 is already a major cover story. I'm certainly no one to debate the logic of Steve Miller (See? Just then a little bit more time slipped by, and you know where it went), but instead of jumping on the bandwagon and writing about 2000, I thought we could spend the immediate future delving into the past. Instead of trying to predict what will happen three years down the road, I believe that we can be better served by examining, and learning from, events of the past.
Well, I don't really believe that, but it's a plausible lead-in to our journey back in time. From the modern comfort of 1997, still brand-spanking-new with that sexy showroom smell in the interior, we will venture back not just a few decades, but in increments of literally hundreds of years! My in-depth research has revealed many fascinating occurrences during the past 1,997 years of human activity, so settle back, relax, imagine calendar pages flying past as your vision becomes blurred and the mysterious, ethereal whine of a theremin sci-fi soundtrack fills your ears.
A.D. 97: Well, this is certainly a long time ago. In Rome, a guy named Emperor Nerva is in charge. He helps the poor, cuts everybody a lower tax rate, tolerates the Christians; he's a sweetheart. But by 97, he's 62, he can't handle the uppity Praetorian Guard--his personal bodyguards--and figures he better let somebody with a stronger hand take over before he gets et tu, Bruted. So this year he brings in general Marcus Ulpius Trajanus, 44, adopts the guy, gives him the reins, and kicks back to enjoy his golden years. Which last for all of a couple months, as he goes toes up next year. So much for 97.
197: Silkworms are brought from Korea to China and then Japan, resulting in some really glamorous outfits, and exciting, sensual undergarments.
Also in China, the Yellow Turban Rebellion is in full swing (it lasts until 204), and get this: The whole mess is started by a traveling magician named Chang Chueh, who supposedly heals thousands during an epidemic by giving them his special magical water, which makes folks treat him like a god.
Sensing a good thing, Chang hands out yellow turbans, and gets his people to rebel against the corrupt, wicked eunuchs who are the brains behind the Han Dynasty, the actual emperor being nothing more than a beard. And, in Chinese-facial-hair terms, a wispy one at that. Anarchy reigns for a while, but it is ultimately sayonara to the Han Dynasty.
The only other action this year is when D. Clodius Albinus, Rome's British delegate, is offed February 19 in the Battle of Lyons. Oh well.
297: A slow year. The Romans wrestle Armenia from the Persians. That's about it.
397: Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, the forward-thinking talent that put church singing on the map in a Christian way, joins the Big Choir in the Sky.
Spotlight on Scotland--the Picts, ancient dwellers of the land that would give us golf and Dinty Moore, are evangelized by Scottish apostle Ninian. He's dedicated; it took the man 15 years of study in Rome to get consecrated. Good job, Nin!
497: Say hello to fashion. The Anglo-Saxons doff their skins and step into smart shirts, tunics and coats. Also, Clovis, King of Franks, is in office. I knew a black guy named Clovis who actually sold ballpark franks at Camden Yards in Baltimore. True story.
597: Boring year. Saint Augustine founds a monastery in Canterbury. But you probably remember that from high school history class.
697: Kiss Byzantine rule goodbye in North Africa, courtesy of the Arabs. In other news, foxy Japanese empress Jito steps down at age 32, and who do they get to run the show? A 14-year-old! He's Emperor Momu, the grandson of the late Emperor Tenmu, and he lasts 'til 707. Proving that Tenmu will not get you 20. Ha!
797: Joan Crawford's got nothing on this mommy dearest: Byzantine Empress Irene blinds her son Constantine, assumes power, gets the Greek Church to canonize her and proposes to Charlemagne. Meanwhile in France, they're installing horse-changing posts for royal messengers. Finally.
897: Dateline Japan: Emperor Uda calls it quits at the ripe old age of 30 and passes the baton to his son Daigo, who's 12. He's got a country before he's got acne. How about that!
997: Did someone say Vikings? They did in England, where the Nordic bad boys attacked Sussex, Kent, Hants and Dorset.
1097: Trust me on this one, just more dull history.
1197: You like blood, violence, action? Who doesn't, and if the name Genghis Khan (distant relative of Chaka) means anything to you, we're talking jackpot. Genghis and his Mongol horde are going at it hard and heavy, having started their ass-kicking sweep across Asia in 1175--the party lasts until 1218. When the dust and boiling oil settle, Genghis and company have created an empire that stretches from the Pacific to the Black Sea. "I will carry slaughter and cause devastation to my enemy . . . so my name will live," says Khan, in between savageries. You just read it, so I guess he was right.
1297: If I told you that giant giraffe birds in New Zealand die out this year, would you believe me? Well, it's true. They were called Moas. R.I.P.
1397: If you were the Duke of Gloucester on September 9 of this year, you would be murdered.
1497: In between dating young boys, Michelangelo sculpts the Bacchus, a fabulous monument to debauchery. Also on the sex front, the European syphilis epidemic makes its way to England and Scotland, and the English blame it on the French. Who blame it on the Italians, who blame it on the Spanish, who think it came along with Columbus from Haiti. In any case, the disease is serving up pustules, skin eruptions and leg ulcers--with madness as a kicker--to thousands.
Contemporary M.D.'s are stymied, offering scripts for vulture broth with sarsaparilla as a remedy. Which doesn't really work. One military doc alone claimed to have sliced off the private parts of 5,000 soldiers. You can have my share of that.
1597: Thomas Morley writes A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musick, apparently years before A Plain and Easy Introduction to Practical Spelling is written. Shakespeare is hard at the quill this year, penning King John and The Merchant of Venice. And, using its unique form of foolproof evangelism, the Catholic Church recruits new members in Upper Austria, Styria, Carthinia and Carniola on pain of death.
1697: The sedan chair is introduced as the latest in transportation in France. In New York City--yes, it's that old!--the first paid fire department is created. Daniel Defoe (distant relative of Willem Dafoe) comes up with "An Essay Upon Projects." Whatever that is. Mayan civilization in the Yucatan is effectively erased by the Spanish, but to this day, those ruins make for a great tourist attraction.
1797: Mother Earth belches up a good one for the poor souls in Ecuador on February 4; a humongous earthquake starts the dominoes of destruction falling; they include avalanches and volcanoes. The village of Cuero is utterly buried by a massive chunk of mountainside. In Masdro, just as the avalanche is about to roll into village limits, the ground opens up and swallows everything wholesale. Only two people live to tell the tale. Forty thousand are killed, all told.
On a lighter note, John Adams--the first president to live in D.C.--is inaugurated; German astronomer H.W.M. Olbers publishes his enthralling method of calculating the orbits of comets, his fellow countryman Ludwig Tieck writes Der Gestiefelte Kater (Puss in Boots to you and me); England, God love her, begins to export iron and the first washing machine is patented. Goodbye, blue Mondays. Let's not forget that Cuban cigar makers, God love 'em, create "cigarettes" by using paper wrappers. And rolling smaller. One more thing, a French chemist named Louis Nicolas Vauquelin isolates chromium, which down the road will make a big splash in fenders and dildoes.
1897: Lordy, what a year this is. Bram Stoker publishes his novel Dracula (later to influence Hollywood stud-talents Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise). Rostand writes Cyrano de Bergerac (later to influence Hollywood funny man Steve Martin), and Tolstoy comes up with Resurrection (as yet to influence anyone in Hollywood).
Also, just when they thought it was never going to happen, the Sultan of Zanzibar abolishes slavery. Do you know what an electron is? If you do, you can thank one J.J. Thompson for that; he discovered the little buggers this year.
No fun being a Parisian socialite in '97, at least if you are on the Rue Jean Goujon for the charity bazaar on May 4. A flash fire breaks out and kills some 200 partygoers.
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But why dwell on tragedy? C.W. Post introduces breakfast cereal; some genius invents the ice cream sundae in Ithaca, New York, on a Thursday; the first x-ray of the entire body of a living, breathing person happens in New York City; my grandfather is born in San Bernardino, California; the first incinerator burns up a load of trash in St. Louis; and perhaps more important than anything, the first Rock Wool Factory opens in Alexandria, Indiana.
In the words of Mr. Sinatra, it was a very good year.
Which brings us to 1997.
Nothing has happened yet.
You can allow your eyes to refocus. You can ruminate on what you have just learned. Don't you see the path of history more clearly? Now do you understand how that path will extend into the future and bring us all pain, sorrow, joy and truth as we approach the frightening and magical year 2000?