Nate DiMeo's The Memory Palace podcasts: Mournful yet mesmerising four-minute wonders

 

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The Independent Culture

If, as a dedicated radio listener, you haven't heard The Memory Palace podcast (thememorypalace.us), the three-to-four-minute snippets of history beamed from Los Angeles, then your life isn't what it could be. I would even go so far as to say you are letting yourself down.

Thanks to its writer and host Nate DiMeo – a man to whom I would gladly sell my offspring if he would come to my house and read me bedtime stories – The Memory Palace is food for the mind and a balm to the soul.

Previous episodes have found DiMeo, formerly a stalwart of the NPR show All Things Considered, dwelling on the panic-filled day in 1848 when Niagara Falls stopped falling. This was the same day that hundreds of livelihoods, including those of the mill workers who relied on the water to turn the wheels, and the men who rowed the tourist boats in the mist at the bottom of the falls, appeared to grind to a halt.

Another saw him reflecting on the career of Harriet Quimby, the journalist, photographer and screenwriter who one day found herself at the second International Aviation Exhibition in Long Island, and decided she would learn to fly. A year later she got her pilot's licence and the year after that became the first woman to fly the English Channel.

DiMeo's latest offering – and they only arrive once every few months, so they are to be savoured like rare truffles – focused on the Ohio-born US Marine Corps pilot and astronaut John Glenn who, in 1962, was the first American to orbit the Earth. Except that the early part of the story revolved around the fears of his wife, Annie.

On hearing that her husband had been selected as one of the fabled "Mercury Seven", DiMeo told us, she went straight to church to ask the pastor if a man was allowed to leave God's planet, even temporarily, and if "the heavens weren't actually heaven".

After lengthy consultation with the Bible, the pastor could find no reason for Glenn not to go so he did, while his wife sat at home on the living room rug and prayed.

With the help of archive recordings of Glenn's reports from the capsule, DiMeo also told us about the mysterious glowing orbs that, seemingly out of nowhere, began to swirl around Glenn in space. "They look like little stars, all brilliantly white... there are literally thousands of them," Glenn gasped. When he arrived back on Earth he debriefed Nasa and the President. No one could explain what he had seen, but as a man of faith Glenn was confident that it was a message from God.

Thirty-five years later, when he went into space again at the age of 77, Glenn – who went on to become a US senator, and is now the oldest living member of the original seven – still believed in the miracle of the dancing stars, though it seemed other less godly minds had solved the mystery.

These light-filled orbs were no holy seraphs; nor were they tiny extraterrestrial beings. They were, in fact, little particles of wee – Glenn's own, as it happened – which had been expelled from the capsule as he orbited the Earth.

DiMeo's podcasts are based on fact but they are no straight-down-the-line encyclopaedia entries. They are slices of history presented like short stories, and read over a gently tinkling soundtrack.

Mournful yet mesmerising, they are four-minute pockets of poetry designed to remind us of other times and other lives. They are completely wonderful. You should listen.

Twitter.com/FionaSturges

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