Monday, April 12, 2021

The past we exalt reflects who we are now

Umberto Nobile, center, with Mussolini, left in a dark suit.

     Major General Umberto Nobile is not a historical personage whose fame resonates down the ages. Though he did a cool thing — designed the dirigible Norge and piloted it over the North Pole with explorer Roald Admundsen in 1926, making them the first people to reach that distant axis.
     Richard E. Byrd claimed to have beaten them by a few days, flying over the pole in an airplane. But that was later disputed. History has a way of changing its mind like that. Byrd was a hero, then; now he’s a fraud, maybe. Times change.
     The story of Nobile’s arrival ran in the Chicago Daily News next to an article on Zenith testing short wave radio — that’s where I bumped into him. Much new technology debuted in Chicago: VHS tape was first demonstrated here, cell phones, too. On July 8, 1926, while Nobile was arriving at LaSalle Street station, Zenith engineers in a freight yard in Englewood were showing off a new marvel, short wave radio, to communicate between the engine and the caboose of a New York Central freight train a mile long.
     I was rooting around in the past because the University of Chicago Press asked me to write a book offering 366 historical vignettes, one for each day of the year. But only one. Which demands choices, often hard choices. Reading the Nobile story, I thought maybe I should drop the radio breakthrough and go with the dashing aviator instead. He certainly was a big deal at the time. Hundreds of Chicagoans cheered as he stepped down from the Golden State Limited.
     “Mussolini himself could hardly have received a more noisy ... welcome,” noted the Daily News, name checking the Italian dictator who had remade Italy into a totalitarian state and cult of personality.
     “Black-shirted fascisti rushed up to him and extended their arms in the fascist salute,” the newspaper noted. “They shouted the fascist cry of Italian loyalty.”
     A band played and songs were sung, then Nobile had some remarks.
     “All of us are fascists,” he said. “It is a new Italy.”

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