Spoiler promise: Stay to the end and you will see animated puzzle-creating.
It is perhaps a personality flaw of mine to analyze Everything, even gifts. On my recent birthday, I received a puzzle based on The New York Times headlines on the day I was born a few decades back. (rhymes with -ixty). Of course, it got me to thinking about so many things.
I decided to do the puzzle without looking at the cover, so it was first a jumble of pieces. But this became a fun analytical exercise on several fronts: first separating light from dark, secondly finding meaning in all these letters, and thirdly evaluating what made news in those days. Letting the meaning rise from the ashes, so to speak. As to the last part and what made the news of yesteryear? plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as the saying goes. Things haven’t changed that much.
All you need to see is a headline like “Theobald says Brooklyn class built his boat…” to know that someone is in trouble. I don’t know who Theobald was, but I suspect the Brooklyn class was not supposed to build his boat. It seems odd that such provincial issues for New Yorkers are treated side-by-side with international incidents. But that’s the NYT for you. And they wouldn’t have known–at the time–which of these issues were nitpicking and which would escalate into years of grief. We know now.
I’ll Take Pictures for a Thousand Words, Alex
The adoption of photography was a boon for newspapers. It likely helped turn them into the spectacles that they’ve become. (Pun intended). Even in 1961, the giant, arresting, bizarre photo on the page wasn’t as much information as just a weird image. Foreign Students Stampede at White House… at first, you are sure that this is a protest! Stampede sounds pretty January 6th-ey. But no, they were just trying to shake Kennedy’s hand.
At the time, Kennedy was vastly more popular overseas than in the U.S. He’d only been in office six months and he hadn’t even gone to Berlin and proclaimed that he was a donut yet. But given his charm, youth, war hero status, and inspiring rhetoric, some of the youth of the world thought he was the cat’s meow. Afterward, one suspects there was an increase in the Secret Service budget. After Kennedy, there would be a huge increase in the Secret Service budget.
The other pictures on the page were a couple of white dudes. Theobald (the plot thickens–who was this guy, pointing at someone in a meeting?) and Humphrey, an earnest and experienced politician who wanted to do good by talking.
What’s Up With Humphrey?
Humphrey was a Senator at the time, eventually would be Vice President, though he never made it to becoming President. He was a lot like Joe Biden. Very experienced, long waiting in the wings, not terribly impressive when you heard him talk on TV, but apparently charismatic and very personable to those who met him. In July 1961, he’d just returned from an overseas visit and said that the USSR was covering up massive food shortages, which was putting pressure on Germany and other allies. Maybe this was true; maybe not.
The USSR had experienced severe famines and massive food shortages from poor management. But others who grew up in the 1960s said that there was enough low-quality food to stave off starvation: people had bread and milk, but not chock-full grocery stores like in the U.S. So it’s hard to know if this particular story about a food crisis was the U.S. “we’re better than the Russkies” commentary, whether it was steeped in truth, or whether it was a combination. The story is about his trip and the lack of food creating problems, yet notice how the headline throws the word “WAR” in there as well.
Meanwhile, after completing the puzzle and searching carefully, there’s still a piece missing from Humphrey’s head. Given that he never did win the presidency, it seems ironic.
Oh That Wacky Theobald
Meanwhile, John Theobald, the Superintendent of the New York School system had apparently gotten a class in Brooklyn to build him a boat. Allegedly. Names were withheld. He denied any improprieties, but this wasn’t the last time he was accused of fiddling and scams. He eventually left in 1963 after more accusations, to join a company that built “teaching machines.” A Freedom of Information Act related to New York records says that from 1959 to 1963 the district under Theobald faced a never-ending list of scandals: cockroaches in NY classrooms and gifts of whiskey from school building contractors.
What were the teaching machines? the 1961 version of computerized learning. The reports said that students learned better at a slow, step-by-step pace, but even if the best teaching machine was a teacher, they couldn’t cover everybody. Ergo, by slow-paced teaching machines. Suddenly, you can envision everyone in the classroom staring at algebra on a screen. Even as bad as online learning is today, it would have been so much worse back then. But those early consulting educational companies would have made a mint. Plus ca change…
Communism Lurks Everywhere
Once the pictures and headlines provided a framework, the rest had to emerge from bits of words and phrases. As it turns out, words like “communism,” “politicians,” “rate increases,” borough president,” and “scandal” were everywhere. I found “communism” in the discussion about Seoul, Soviet and Yugoslavia, criticisms of the atomic (nuclear) power plan, and from Humphrey’s report. One particular piece of “communism” ended up in a discussion of Pakistan being unhappy with the Americans supplying arms to India. Of all places, that wasn’t where communism probably was, at the time.
Sometimes Panic Is Justified
Left to right, the top headlines were about a city council race, the use of paper ballots, Theobald’s boat-building scheme, the Pakistanis, Humphrey’s opinion… and then that little note, far right, about Adenauer and the panic in Germany. In July 1961, Berliners were getting out of town, flying out in a “panic.” The chancellor of West Germany, Konrad Adenauer, was trying to quell public concern.
But East Berlin was about to close the border. The East Germans were shipping in the concrete blocks, about to start building the wall on August 13. Of all the stories at the time, that’s the one which would single years of misery, assassination, murder, torture, and spy-based shenanigans until the wall would come down 28 years later. The Soviets–at least the East German-supported side–were ready for a “war” after all. They needed a better headline maybe. Look Out, the Berlin Wall Is Coming!
Turning to Today’s Top Stories…
So what would we find, if we looked at the same newspaper, same front page, six decades later? The pictures are in color and there are graphics (video-based, when online). But the same mix of international and provincial, with a few “oh no!” stories mixed in that turned out to be kind of “meh.” That inflation thing from 2021, though, turned out to be a pretty big deal. Haiti is still in a huge crisis, as just this week, the Organization of American States pointed the finger at international lack of support and mishandled response to their need for help… the words “Nuremberg trials” were mentioned. Just like back in the 60s.
The front page, at least the physical version, had fewer New York-only stories. There is one (not shown) about black voters in New York, to complement Biden’s comments about recent voter suppression efforts. Talk of schools, like in the ’60s. Even the Haiti story is reminiscent of the pleas for help from Berlin. The world is a big place, and someone always seems to need help. And yet, giving what did happen in Berlin, after July 1961, they could have used all the help that was offered.
Even if the stories don’t change that much, humans have to keep going to support each other. There is a lot of “bad news” and it can feel overwhelming. And yet, as my favorite quote goes, If you feel helpless, go help someone.
Meanwhile, no matter how puzzling the world is, we can make sense of it.
In summary, time marches on! As promised, here’s how it looked to put the puzzle together: