Strange days

It’s now getting rather weird. Correction. It’s not getting weird … it is weird. Four of the worst episodes of mass death in this country’s history have all taken place in the past 14 years and within the framework of the same five-day time window. (1) The Waco Wipeout, pitting David Koresh’s Branch Davidians vs. the feds—4/19/93, (2) Tim McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing—4/19/95. (2) Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold run amok at Columbine High School—4/20/99. And now, (3) Cho Seung-Hui and his rampage at Virginia Tech—4/16/07. Is there anything at all to be read into this?

McVeigh picked his date in part to make a Waco statement, and the Columbine Kids chose their date with doom in relation to Hitler’s birthday (4/20/1889), so it’s not all cosmically coincidental. But still, at this point, it’s getting obvious that the proper behavior for us Americans in the middle of April is (1) pay taxes, then (2) head for hills with crash helmet in place and cinched down tightly.

There is one other event that took place within this mid-April time frame, one that had far greater world-wide impact than these four grimnesses combined, one that is nowhere near as famous. Specifically, it happened on 4-19-43. Can you guess?

I’m speaking of the most notorious bicycle ride in the 20th century, that of Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman. It was on Friday the 16th of April, 1943, that Mr. Hoffman, after unwittingly absorbing through the skin of his fingers a new substance he had been working with called LSD-25, went home early and got into bed, thinking he was coming down with a cold. It was anything but. While in bed that afternoon, he reported seeing “an uninterrupted stream of fantastic images of extraordinary plasticity and vividness.” Realizing that whatever had happened must be somehow related to the LSD, Hoffman went back to the lab on Monday the 19th, and, at 4:20 in the afternoon (4-20 fans, I’m not makin’ that up!), took what he thought to be an extremely conservative oral dose of the stuff—an incredibly tiny 250 millionths of a gram. At 5 p.m., feeling a little dizzy, he hopped onto his bike for the ride home, “and pedaled off into a suddenly anarchic universe. This wasn’t the familiar boulevard that led home, but a street painted by Salvador Dali.”

Over the next 30 years, millions of people hopped on Albert’s bike, and the echoes from that collective thrill ride can still be heard in the cultural background hiss of the present. It’s still amazing to contemplate—a new molecule that could literally wobble the planet itself. Will another bike ride of similar power and influence ever take place? In the meantime, next April 16, heads up, be cool, and have that crash helmet handy.