SEPTEMBER 2: James Forten: free, black, and loyal to his country


Brenda Johnston published "Between the Devil and the Sea: The Life of James Forten" in 1974.

Brenda Johnston published “Between the Devil and the Sea: The Life of James Forten” in 1974.

ON THIS DATE in 1766, James Forten was born in Philadelphia. As a free fifteen-year-old African American, he served as a powder boy on the ship Rolay Louis during the Revolutionary War. Captured by the British in 1781, he struck up a friendship with the captain’s son, who arranged an offer through his father: Forten’s freedom and an education in Great Britain.

If Forten refused the offer, he might be sold as a slave, but that didn’t sway him. “I am a prisoner for the liberties of my country,” he said on refusing the deal. “I never, never, shall prove a traitor to her interests.”

Imprisoned with 1,000 others on a ship anchored near New York, Forten endured the overcrowded, disease-ridden conditions for seven months. After his release, he started a sailmaking company and eventually achieved considerable wealth.

Forten’s granddaughter, Charlotte Forten, started a now-classic diary as a sixteen-year-old in 1854 that chronicled free African American life before, during, and after the Civil War.


SEPTEMBER 1: Girls save the bay — maybe

ON THIS DATE 200 years ago (September 1, 1814), nineteen-year-old Rebecca Bates and her fifteen-year-old sister Abigail played a clever ruse that scared off British soldiers intent on sacking their Massachusetts harbor town during the War of 1812.


Rebecca and Abigail Bates, sometimes called the Army of Two, have been the subject of children's books.

Rebecca and Abigail Bates, sometimes called the Army of Two, have been the subject of children’s books.

As the story goes, Rebecca and Abigail, daughters of a lighthouse keeper, spotted a British warship off the coast of Scituate Harbor, located 25 miles south of Boston. The ship had dispatched boats full of soldiers intent on destroying U.S. fishing boats or vessels carrying flour (stories differ), and perhaps ransacking the town.

Simeon Bates, the girls’ father, was away with the rest of the family. Desperate to save their home and town, the girls played a fife and drum, instruments associated with military maneuvers. The British heard the music without seeing the girls and assumed a U.S. military unit must be afoot. They scurried back to their warship, and disaster was averted.

Sixty-two years later, The New York Times dismissed the fife-and-drum story in an obituary for Abigail Bates. “The sober history of Scituate relates that only once did the Britishers approach the place,” wrote The Times. On that occasion, soldiers in two small British boats entered the harbor and burned some local sea vessels. According to The New York Times, “No resident of the town was known to have especially distinguished himself.”

The Bates sisters insisted on their own, more colorful, version of events, and an 1880 entry from Proceedings of the Massachussets Historical Society supported their story. The British had been after “two vessels laden with flower” and would have taken the goods and imprisoned any men on board, according to the Historical Society. The Bates sisters prevented British mischief by “hiding behind a bluff” and playing “so vigorously upon their instruments that the marines in the barges … hurriedly rowed off seaword.”

 Late in life, Rebecca and Abigail Bates signed affadavits claiming their tale was true. The older sister signed her statement, “Rebecca, the Fifer,” and the younger sister refers to herself as “Abbie, the drummer, one of the American party of two.”

AUGUST 31: Korbut vaults into our hearts

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ON THIS DATE (August 31) in 1972, seventeen-year-old Olga Korbut of the Soviet Union won two gold and one silver medal in individual competition at the Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany.

Four years later, fourteen-year-old Nadia Comaneci did even better, winning three gold medals, a silver, and a bronze at the Montreal Olympics. In the process, Comaneci introduced gymnastic perfection, receiving the first-ever perfect scores (seven in all).

Who was the better gymnast? Comaneci. Who made the greater cultural impact? I say Korbut because she was the first teenage pixie (4-foot-11, 84-pounds) gymnast, and her emotionalism made a lot of us re-think the dehumanizing stereotype of cold, calculating Soviets.

Comaneci, a Romanian, also belonged to a Soviet bloc country, but despite her bangs and big brown eyes, she was as precise and deadly as an AK-47.

That’s no knock on Comaneci. She had a job to do in the 1976 Olympics, and she did it brilliantly. It’s just, she dazzled us through sheer athletic genius, where Korbut was more about joy and tears and passion. We admired Comaneci, but we connected with Korbut, who seemed as emotionally vulnerable as any American of her age, if not more so.

Americans tend, I believe, to overrate the effect of athletics on politics — did Joe Louis knocking out Max Schmeling in 1938 really humble Nazi Germany? (As a nation, they didn’t act too humble). So maybe I’m wrong here. But I think it did Westerners good to watch and love Olga Korbut during the fourth decade of the Cold War. It’s hard to hate an enemy when you suspect that they’re a lot like us.

AUGUST 30: The email inventor debate

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ABOVE: Shiva Ayyudurai (top) has said he’s the inventor of email. Many believe Raymond Tomlinson (below) introduced electronic messaging.

ON THIS DATE in 1982, eighteen-year-old Shiva Ayyadurai copyrighted the term “EMAIL.” Did he also invent electronic messaging? The Indian American from New Jersey says yes — One of his websites is titled and states his case for being the originator of email.

What is known is that in 1978, the fourteen-year-old Ayyadurai began working on an electronic mail system for a New Jersey medical/dental university where his mother worked. Two years later, he had completed an e-mail system.

In 2011, TIME magazine called Ayyadurai “The Man Who Invented EMail” in a headline, and a 2012 Washington Post story appeared under the heading, “V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai: Inventor of email honored by Smithsonian.” A number of readers charged that Shiva had no claim to the invention, and the newspaper printed a correction that stated, “A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai as the inventor of electronic messaging.”


In 2013, Ayyadurai was often seen with former “The Nanny” star Fran Drescher, fifty-six. It was reported that they were dating.

Thomas Haigh, a computer historian and assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, responded angrily to the Post story. “Mail features became common on the timesharing computers of the late 1960s,” he wrote.

The Internet Hall of Fame ( credits thirty-year-old Raymond Tomlinson with creating the first e-mail system in 1971. A profile on the website says Tomlinson “is widely known for inventing network electronic mail, choosing the ‘@’ sign in emails to connect the username with the destination address.”

One of Ayyadurai’s supporters is famed intellectual Noam Chomsky, who wrote that “email was invented in 1978 by a 14-year-old working in Newark, NJ,” wrote Chomsky. “ The facts are indisputable.”

Superb Cinema Seniors

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LOTS OF GOOD SENIORS missing here, including Lloyd Dobler (Say Anything), Bud Stamper and Deanie Loomis (Splendor in the Grass), Baby Houseman (Dirty Dancing), Ren MacCormack (Footloose), Marty McFly (Back to the Future), Olive Penderghast (Easy A, Tre Styles (Boyz N The Hood), Jim Levenstein (American Pie), John Bender (Breakfast Club), Jason Dean (Heathers), and Rizzo (Grease).

Who else is missing?

By the way, I know that Lloyd Dobler was a lot more interesting than Diane Court. I just wanted someone smart on the list (she was valedictorian of her high school). Most compelling movie teens are goofy or troubled. If they’re bright, they tend to be more savvy bright than classroom bright.

Jeff Spicoli doesn’t make the list because he was a sophomore in Cameron Crowe’s script for Fast Times at Ridgemont High. I’m pretty sure Carrie White (Carrie) was a sophomore or junior, although she attended the senior prom. Max Fischer of Rushmore is one of my favorite teen characters, but he was a sophomore at the start of the movie.

Juno MacGuff may have been a junior. She was only sixteen. But she acted much older.

AUGUST 29: Hail the Tiny Diver




ABOVE: Aileen Riggin dives at the Antwerp Olympics, and poses with a trophy she received from Belgium’s King Albert.


ON THIS DATE in 1920, fourteen-year-old American Aileen Riggin dove into the muddy waters of an Antwerp (Belgium) canal and won the first-ever gold medal in Olympic springboard diving.

 The youngest member of the first American women’s Olympic swimming and diving team, Riggin became the tiniest champion ever, standing just four foot seven and weighing 65 pounds.

 “Until two months before the tryouts, we had no idea of the dives required, and some were entirely new,” Riggin wrote in 1974. What worried her most, though, was the mud at the bottom of the diving canal. “I kept thinking, the water is black and nobody could find me if I really got stuck down there,” she said, quoted in Greg Kehm’s Olympic Swimming and Diving (2007). “And if I were coming down with force, I might go up to my elbows and I’d be stuck permanently, and nobody would miss me and I’d die a horrible drowning death.”

 Riggin survived to compete again, four years later, at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. The Rhode Island-born New Yorker won a silver medal in springboard diving and a bronze medal in the 100-meter backstroke, making her the only woman to win medals in swimming and diving in the same Olympics.

 Aileen Riggin Soule, ninety-six, died in a Honolulu nursing home in 2002. She had been the oldest living American female gold medalist.

AUGUST 28: Two Teens and UPS

ON THIS DATE in 1907, a pair of teenagers formed a messenger service in Seattle that we now know as United Parcel Service, or UPS.

ups_timeline-mainJames E. Casey, nineteen, and Claude Ryan, eighteen, originally called their company American Messenger Service. Operating out of a 6-by-17 foot room beneath a tavern run by Ryan’s uncle, they employed six bicycle riders to deliver messages and packages throughout Seattle. 

By the end of 1912, Casey and Ryan employed 100 messengers. Ryan sold his shares in the company in 1917, two years before the business expanded to Oakland, California, and took the name United Parcel Service.

By 1930, UPS was operating in cities all over the West Coast, as well as New York City. Stressing efficiency and courtesy, the company was able to serve every address in America by 1975. Thirty years later, UPS had gone global, delivering nearly 16 million packages and documents worldwide each day to more than 200 countries and territories.