By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

The Books & Culture Weblog

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This Week:

  1. Timeline: April 2003
  2. Places & Culture
  3. Scrapbook
  4. Weekly Digest


"The hounds of spring are on winter's traces," wrote Algernon Charles Swinburne, and this April, the season was indeed marked by dogged pursuit of rebirth. After nearly a month of combat, American troops completed their trek to Baghdad, where Iraqi civilians helped them fell a statue of their dictator, collapsing his regime and all but ending the war. Earlier, a Marine unit hounded the trail of seven U.S. POW's, and restored them to safety, including 19-year-old private Jessica Lynch.

Quests for transformation marked the month elsewhere in the world as well. You have to empty yourself to feel filled, and, in possibly his last encyclical letter of doctrine, Pope John Paul II reminded followers to go to confession before taking communion. Many doctors give patients a new lease on life, but few give any of them a kidney, as Dr. Susan Hou did in Chicago. "I can't bring about world peace," she said. "But I can get one person off dialysis." Across town, the perennially futile Cubs allowed hope to spring by ending the month in first place. Elizabeth Smart began to assume routines of a normal life after a nine-month abduction, leaving a lawyer to sort through offers to buy the movie rights to her story. But transformation was also resisted. The town of Hamburg, New York, rejected a suggestion from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to change its name to Veggieburg. And the prison system's cycle of frustration reached a milestone, as the country's prison population surpassed two million for the first time ever, despite a decade-long decline in violent crime.

Spring's spirit of rejuvenation owes itself to youth, metaphorically and etymologically (the Latin root of "rejuvenation" is juvenis for "youth"), which made a new study of youth literacy last month all the more encouraging, and why the Colorado governor was pleased to institute the country's first state school voucher program. In sports, we saw the return of a wee little golfer—or, more accurately: Wie, little golfer—as 13-year-old Michelle Wie returned to the women's pro golf tour. Such blossoming of youth made one scientific discovery more horrifying, as researchers documented a genetic condition that accelerates aging and causes children to die of old age.

Another pestilence, SARS, spread around the world. And yet, in a month in which a New York man validated the famous hypothetical headline "Man Bites Dog", media hysteria was such that you could watch a television news program cut from an alarming report about SARS, which at month's end had killed less than 350 people, to an advertisement for SUV's, which a new study last month said killed over 10,000 people in the U.S. last year, nearly 500 more than the year before.

April bore cheerier discoveries as well. The Genome Project was declared officially complete. Hawaiian astronomers spotted six more moons around Jupiter, while NASA picked out landing sites for twin rovers to comb Mars next year. Meanwhile, geologists in Madagascar found fossilized toothmarks they said was proof of dinosaur cannibalism.

Other echoes of history reverberated in April. Outside of Waco, Texas, a tenth-anniversary memorial service was held in a small chapel on the site of the destroyed Davidian compound. Georgia lawmakers approved a redesign of the state flag, shrinking the presence of the Confederate flag and striking a Dixie battle emblem. Other American icons were idled in April, as Philadelphia's Independence Hall was closed over security concerns and Michael Jordan played his last NBA game. Roy Williams, an assistant to Coach Dean Smith during Jordan's collegiate career at the University of North Carolina, became the winningest active NCAA coach never to win a championship; Jim Boeheim, after 27 years without a championship at Syracuse, coached his team past Williams and Kansas in this year's final.

The widow of John Steinbeck and one of the first female stage managers on Broadway, Elaine Steinbeck died in April at the age of 88. Robert Atkins, whose best-selling diet plan finally gained widespread credibility at the end of his life, died of a head injury at age 72. Mary Christian, 113, who survived the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, was the oldest living American. Hout Seng, who shuttled foreign journalists around Cambodia in the 1970s, had mourned his wife during their escape from the Khmer Rouge regime and became a Washington, D.C. cabdriver. A horse-drawn hearse bore the body of blues legend Earl King through the streets of New Orleans. Mike Larrabee had overcome an inflamed pancreas to win two gold medals at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Charlie Tolar, a 5-foot-6 fullback, became an NFL fan favorite in the 1960s by barreling into gigantic opposing linemen. Anita Borg was a pioneer for women in computer science. Cecile de Brunhoff created Babar the Elephant. Charles Douglass invented the laugh track for The Jack Benny Show and I Love Lucy. Richard Feller, who died in April at age 84, once considered going into the priesthood, but instead devoted his life to another high calling—cathedral construction, including a career as supervising engineer at Washington National Cathedral.

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