For over a century, every US President elected in a year with a zero at its end has died in office. Whether as a result of ill health or of assassination, this statistic applies to Lincoln (1860), Garfield (1880), McKinley (1900), Harding (1920), FDR (1940) and JFK (1960).
Although it was Reagan (1980) who finally reversed this grim trend, even he was lucky to survive a 1981 assassination attempt. So let me contrast that with something much more agreeable that always occurs in a year with a zero at its end.
Oberammergau is a picturesque little village located in the Bavarian Alps in southern Germany, just to the north of the Austrian border. In 1632, the area was hit by an outbreak of bubonic plague, so the village promised that, every ten years, it would perform a play about Jesus if only God would protect them from the plague. It is recorded that the death rate then dropped dramatically. Oberammergau has since kept its promise. Its Passion Play was first performed in 1634 and it continues to be performed in every year with a zero at its end. In September 2010, it will be performed for the 41st time.
Pat and I were in Oberammergau for performance in September 1980. The play runs for seven hours and it takes over 2000 people to put it on. In order to participate, one must be a resident of Oberammergau by birth. What is remarkable is that the entire population of the village is only 5,000, which means that every family is involved in the production while continuing its normal life. Yet, when I saw the young man playing the part of Jesus riding his bicycle down the main street of the village, it seemed almost blasphemous. The village is also famous for its woodcarving and its painted houses.
We also visited two magnificent buildings nearby, namely Neuschwanstein Castleand Linderhof Palace. They were both built by King Ludwig II of Bavaria in the latter part of the 19th century. In 1886, Ludwig was declared to be insane and was arrested. His death the following day was declared to be suicide. It now seems likely that he was not insane and that he was murdered, but this is not the place to consider that.
Neuschwanstein Castle stands on a mountain top and is today said to be the most photographed building in Germany. “Schwan” is German for swan. Ludwig loved swans and the swan motif appears repeatedly throughout the castle. By English standards, this is no castle. English castles are protected from attack by moats, drawbridges, high battlements and slits in the walls through which the defenders can shoot arrows. It would be so easy for attackers to capture Neuschwanstein Castle, which is simply a fairy-tale residence on top of a mountain. Nevertheless, it is lovely and Ludwig included features ahead of their time by 19th century standards. Venting, plumbing, steam engines, central heating, electricity were all introduced and contradict the medieval appearance of the building.
Linderhof Palace is even closer to Oberammergau. Ludwig modeled it after the Palace of Versailles, even though it is much smaller. Under the building is a grotto illuminated by changing colors through which Ludwig liked to be rowed, while listening to the music of his favorite composer – Wagner.
Some years later, Pat and I settled in Orlando, Florida and naturally took our children to Disney World. Neuschwanstein was Walt Disney’s inspiration for the castle he built in the Magic Kingdom at Disney World. In fact “Neuschwanstein” is the word that comes to mind as soon as one glimpses what Disney has built in the swamps of Central Florida.
Disney World is full of crowds and of long lines of vacationers patiently awaiting admission to the various attractions. As I stood in the hot Florida sunshine with excited crowds swarming past me, I asked myself what King Ludwig would have thought of all this? Bob