Bryson's America: A cabinet of splendidly irrelevant curiosities


NOW HERE'S a story I like very much. Just before Christmas last year an American computer games company called Maxis Inc released an adventure game called SimCopter in which players had to fly helicopters on rescue missions. When they successfully completed the final level, according to The New York Times, the winning players were supposed to be rewarded with audio-visual hoopla involving "a crowd, fireworks and a brass band". Instead, the winners found images of men in swimsuits kissing each other.

The rogue images, it turned out, were the work of a mischievous 33-year- old programmer called Jacques Servin. When contacted by the paper, Mr Servin said that he had created the smooching fellows "to call attention to the lack of gay characters in computer games." The company hastily recalled 78,000 games, and invited Mr Servin to find employment elsewhere.

Here's another story I like. In June of this year, while travelling alone across America by car, Mrs Rita Rupp of Tulsa, Oklahoma, got it in mind that she might be abducted. So, just to be on the safe side, she prepared a note in advance, in appropriately desperate-looking handwriting, that said: "Help, I've been kidnapped. Call the highway patrol." The note then gave her name and address, and phone numbers for the appropriate armed authorities.

Now if you write a note like this, you want to make certain that either a) you do get kidnapped or b) you don't accidentally drop the note out of your handbag. Well, guess what happened. The hapless Mrs Rupp dropped the note, it was picked up and turned in by a conscientious citizen, and the next thing you know police in four states had set up roadblocks, issued all-points bulletins and generally got themselves pretty excited. Meanwhile, Mrs Rupp drove on to her destination sweetly unaware of the chaos she had left in her wake.

The trouble with these two stories, delightful though they are, is that I haven't figured out a way to get them into one of my columns. That's the trouble with this column-writing business; I find I am forever coming across interesting and worthwhile titbits and when I come across these diverting items I carefully cut them out or photocopy them and file them away. Then, some time later I come across them again and wonder what on earth I was thinking.

I call this collecting of interesting but ultimately useless information the Ignaz Semmelweiss Syndrome, after the Austro-Hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweiss, who in 1850 became the first person to realise that the spread of infection on hospital wards could be dramatically reduced by washing one's hands. Soon after making his breakthrough discovery, Dr Semmelweiss died - from an infected cut on his hand.

You see what I mean? A splendid story, but I've got no place to put it. I might equally have called the phenomenon the Versalle Syndrome, after the opera singer Richard Versalle, who in 1996, during the US premiere of The Makropoulos Affair at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, sang the fateful words "Too bad you can only live so long," and then fell down dead from a heart attack.

Then again, I might have named it in honour of the great General John Sedgewick of the Union Army, whose last words, at the Battle of Fredericksburg during the American Civil War, were: "I tell you, men, they could not hit a bull at this dis..."

What all these people have in common is that they don't have the slightest relevance to anything I have ever written about or probably ever will. I keep these things filed away just in case they may come in handy in a pinch. In consequence, I have manila folders bulging with cuttings like well, like this one from a newspaper in Portland, Maine, bearing the headline "Man Found Chained to Tree Again". It was the "Again" that caught my eye. If the headline had said "Man Found Chained to Tree" I would probably have turned the page. After all, anyone can get himself chained to a tree once. But twice - well, now that's beginning to seem a tad careless.

The person concerned was one Larry Doyen of Mexico, Maine, who has the interesting hobby of attaching himself to trees with a chain and padlock and throwing the key out of reach. On this particular occasion, he had been out in the woods for two weeks and had very nearly expired.

This diverting story is clearly a salutary lesson for any of us who were thinking of taking up al fresco bondage, but it's hard to imagine at this remove what I was hoping to make of it in this column. I am similarly at a loss to recall the presumed significance of a small story I saved from the Seattle Times concerning a group of army paratroopers who, as a public relations exercise, agreed to parachute on to a high-school football pitch in Kennewick, Washington, to present the game ball to the home team's quarterback. With commendable precision they leapt from their aeroplane, trailing coloured smoke from special flares, executed several nifty and breathtaking aerobatic manoeuvres, and landed in an empty stadium on the other side of town.

I am equally unable to account fully for another story from The New York Times, about a couple who wrote down the gurgling sounds made by their baby daughter, presented it in the form of a poem (typical line: "Bwah- bwah bwah-bwah bwah-bwah"), submitted it to the North American Open Poetry Contest, and won a semi-finalist prize.

Sometimes, alas, I don't save the whole article, but just a paragraph from it, so that all I am left with is a mystifying fragment. Here is a quotation from the March 1996 issue of Atlantic Monthly magazine: "It is perfectly legal for a dermatologist to do brain surgery in his garage if he can find a patient willing to get on the table and pay for it." Here's another, from The Washington Post: "Researchers at the University of Utah have discovered that most men breathe mainly through one nostril for three hours and mainly through the other for the following three." Goodness knows what they do for the other 18 hours of the day, because I didn't save the rest of the article.

I keep thinking that I will figure a way to work these oddments up into a column, but I haven't hit on it yet. However, the one thing I can confidently promise you is that when I do, you will read it here first.

`Notes from a Big Country' is published by Doubleday, price pounds 16.99

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