Thursday, March 12, 2009

Why Friday the 13th Matters (To Me)

In the spring of 1998, I wrote the following essay for Public Radio. It was to have appeared June 13, but my old buddy Jim Davis, who was my editor, somehow erased the tape before the piece ran and it was eventually broadcast Friday, May 13, 1999 instead. Something told me later that this was a little piece cosmic interference because the woman who was to become my wife a few months later heard the essay and had what people at NPR call a "driveway moment." She called her mother in Roanoke (Christina lived in Charlottesville at the time) and asked who in the world was that wonderful man doing that essay and my mother-in-law told her. The rest helps build my ego daily.

All that preliminary jabbering goes to set up an essay about Friday the 13th, the second this year and we're only in our third month. Obviously, the only time you can have two of these spooky dates in consecutive months is when the first appears in February.

Here's the essay as it was read on Public Radio, including this italicized explanation:

This was to have been delivered Friday, June 13 of last year, but in one of those spooky turns of events that gives credence to rumors that build over the years, my buddy Jim Davis, who is as competent with a tape recorder as any man in Roanoke, erased his copy just before showtime and you got to hear why I hate baseball instead.

Anyhow, we're going to try it again, and serve it with a special sprinkling of relevance. Here goes:

Friday the13th is a good day to remember -- if only briefly -- the late William C. Stephenson of Roanoke, who had a fondness for it.

Stephenson was born and died on the 13th of the month, his house number was originally 13, his auto license began as 13, then became 1313. His son's was 131313. Three of his four children were married on the 13th. The other didn't marry.

But Wm. C. Stephenson as he preferred to sign his name because that worked out to 13 letters, is something of an aberration in Western culture. Most people become wary around the number and the date.

To our good fortune, May 13 was the only Friday 13th of 1998 -- and it was certainly enough for this essay. Of the possible 14 calendar years, half have one Friday 13th, three have three occurrences and four have two. In 1998, there are three Fridays 13.

Separately, Friday and 13 are considered evil by much of the world. Pagans, of course, take a different view, considering them both wonderful, but that seminar is for another day.

Traditionally, it is a bad day to shave, to get a haircut, or to trim your nails; to go courting or dibbling potatoes; to change your bed sheets, to begin a sea voyage, to visit the sick, or to go on trial.

Though the Irish consider it a good day to die, its reputation is less than sterling in many cultures, especially the Western ones and most especially those infused with Christianity. Early Christians considered 13 a sign of impending disaster, and for good reason: It is the day on which Christ died, Eve is said to have given the Forbidden Fruit to Adam, Noah loaded up the ark and the Tower of Babel fell. There were 13 people at the Last Supper and a witches' coven consists of 13 people, one of whom -- on a Witches' Sabbath -- is Beelzebub. That's enough to make a good Christian nervous.

Norse mythology tells of a banquet at Valhalla to which 12 gods were invited. But Loki, the spirit of general disruption and sorriness, crashed the party and Balder, one of more popular gods in this particular circle, was killed.

Since the Middle Ages, executions have traditionally been held on Friday and the composition of courts in a number of cultures has counted 13: 12 on the jury and one judge. There are 13 steps to the gallows, 13 knots in a hangman's noose and the guillotine blade falls 13 feet after the queen screams "Off with his head!" The 13th card in a Tarot deck is the Grim Reaper.

Fear of the number 13 has its own official designation: trisk-ai-dek-a-phobia.

And a lot of people apparently have it.

Consider the number of tall buildings with no 13th floor. That's not necessarily because the builder is trisk-ai-dek-a-phobic, but the company considering renting the floor might have a 13-shy CEO.

As with most phenomena, there's a flip side.

Woodrow Wilson, that conservative Christian egghead of a president of ours, was quite fond of 13, since he was the 13th president of Princeton University, had 13 letters in his name -- as did his mom and dad -- was inaugurated Friday, March 13, 1913, after California's 13 electoral votes secured his victory. His opponent, Charles Evans Hughes voted on Ballot No. 13, but there is no record of what Hughes thought of the number.

Moses B. Cosworth, a New York Congressman in the early 1920s wanted a calendar year with 13 months, each month would have 28 days and each a Friday 13th. People thought him a few fries short of a Big Mac.

In any case, superstition or just good sense aside, I doubt if anybody would notice if you put off dibbling your potatoes or delivering your timely essays until a safer time.

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