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15 of the Greatest Gifts in the History of Presents

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Do you have a pal who always leaves you scratching your head when it comes to gifts? Perhaps something here will sound like the perfect present for the person in your life who has everything—everything except a 69-carat diamond, an eagle made of beer can tabs, and fire.

1. For Friends Abroad: A Statue of Liberty

You’re going to need a bigger tree. The official dedication ceremony for France’s gift of the “New Colossus” was in 1886, but the idea had been in the works since 1865, when French politician Edouard Rene Lefebvre de Laboulaye decided France should do something to honor the U.S. after the Civil War. The statue was built overseas and shipped to the U.S. in pieces. If you’re leaning toward some large statuary like this for your brother from another country, you should probably warn him that he’s going to need to clear some yard space.

2. For Your Shifty Neighbor: The Great Seal of the United States (Bugged)

UN Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge shows off a replica of the Great Seal of the United States to the Security Council. Soviet Foreign Minister Andrey Gromyko smiles with amusement behind Lodge. © Bettmann/CORBIS (1960)

Think your neighbor is going a little Walter White on you? Before you call the DEA, try gifting him with a bugged Great Seal of the United States. In 1945, the Young Pioneer organization of the Soviet Union presented U.S. Ambassador Averell Harriman with a Great Seal, hand-carved from wood, as a gesture of friendship. Their definition of friendship was a little dysfunctional, though, because the gift contained a bug designed by famous Russian inventor Leon Theremin. The bug was hard to detect because it was extremely thin, gave off no signal and had no power supply (this was amazing technology back in 1945, mind you). Harriman hung it in his office at the Ambassador’s House, where the "Thing," as it was later called, went undiscovered until 1952 — three ambassadors later.

3. For Your Friend Who Loves Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: Savannah, GA

The only problem with this gift is that you’ll never top yourself. Next year, you’ll have to give your demanding pal a whole state. After that she’s going to expect everything south of the Mason-Dixon line. Actually, that’s sort of what happened in the first place.

General William T. Sherman had been working his troops hard to secure ports from the Confederate Army during the Civil War. After he captured Atlanta in September 1864, Sherman and some of his men disappeared for about six weeks; the White House received no communication from them and President Lincoln feared the worst. Then, on December 22, Sherman sent Lincoln a telegraph with the message: “I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about 25,000 bales of cotton.”

4. For Animal-Lovers: A White Elephant

We all know people with pets that are slightly left of center. Hedgehogs, ferrets, pot-bellied pigs. To really impress one of these friends, follow in the footsteps of King Manuel of Portugal and give the gift of a white elephant. The unusual present was given to Pope Leo X in 1514; Leo was so enamored with the pachyderm named Hanno that he commissioned Raphael to paint his portrait.

Hopefully your animal-loving friend is a more responsible pet owner than Leo was. Believing that gold was the answer to everything, Leo supposedly had Hanno’s handlers feed him laxatives laced with gold when he got a little constipated. The gold proved too rich for poor Hanno, and he died at the young age of six.

5. For the Pre-Teen Who Has Everything: Tangier and Bombay

When you’re a member of a royal family, it’s not uncommon to be gifted a rather large parcel. A parcel of land, that is. When Charles II of England agreed to marry Catherine of Braganza in 1640 (she was two years old at the time of the agreement, by the way, and Charles was 10), the dowry he received included the North African town of Tangier and what was then Bombay.

6. For Your Friend Who's Always Quoting Lebowski: A Bowling Alley

A two-lane bowling alley was installed in the White House in 1947 as a birthday gift to President Truman. No matter that he hadn’t bowled since he was 19, Truman knocked down seven pins on the first roll at the alley, which was paid for by donors from Truman’s home state of Missouri and moved to the Old Executive Office Building in 1955. Truman didn’t use the alley much himself – he was more of a poker player – but the addition was a big hit with Truman’s staff, some of whom formed a bowling league.

7. For the Friend With a Green Thumb: The Hanging Gardens of Babylon

Legend has it the Hanging Gardens were brought to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar II for his wife, Amytis, who was terribly homesick for Media (Iran). To help her get over it, the Babylonian king created a mini-paradise containing all her favorite Median plants. It’s not around today because it was allegedly destroyed in an earthquake sometime around 2 B.C. Actually, it may not have actually existed at all. Despite written descriptions of the place, some scholars think it was simply a bit of flowery (literally) imagery. But don’t let that stop you from recreating it for an extra-thoughtful gift.

8. For the Friend Who Wears Too Much Jewelry: The Taylor-Burton Diamond

If you have a friend who loves gems and jewels as much as Elizabeth Taylor did, why not splurge and buy her (or him) the Taylor-Burton Diamond, a 69.42 carat pear-shaped diamond Richard Burton bought for his then-wife in 1969? It was the first diamond ever publicly sold for seven figures, but it proved to be a good investment. When Taylor auctioned off the bauble in 1978, it sold for $5 million. She used the proceeds to buy a hospital in Kasane, Botswana. “They need one badly and I certainly don’t need another ring,” Liz said.

9. For Your Favorite Frenemy: The Trojan Horse

We’ve all got one: the friend you have to get a gift for even though you don’t actually like him or her very much. Why not take a page from the Greeks and hook your frenemy up with a building-sized wooden horse containing a whole army? While your “friend” is admiring the craftsmanship, 30 to 50 men will jump out and destroy her small town. That, of course, is the legend of how Greece finally got into the city of Troy and ended the Trojan War in the 11th or 12th century B.C. Troy probably wishes that particular present had come with a gift receipt.

10. For Your Artsy Sister: Las Meninas

Your sister trolls Etsy for charming and original prints pretty much constantly. Giving her Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez will totally blow her mind. To thank his kingly patron, painter Diego Velázquez created a piece in 1656 that depicted the Infanta Margarita with her ladies-in-waiting, a dog and Velázquez himself. King Philip IV and Queen consort Mariana of Austria are shown in the mirror. The masterpiece can now be found in the Museo del Prado in Madrid. If your wallet doesn’t quite allow for the original, by the way, you could always go for a knock-off: Picasso painted 58 versions of Las Meninas in the 1950s

11. For Your Grandma, the Queen of Knick-Knacks: Faberge Eggs

Give one of of these jeweled beauties to your grams and she’ll think of you every time she dusts around it. The first Imperial Faberge egg was created for Tsar Alexander III, who wanted to give his wife an extra-special Easter egg in 1885. The bauble was such a hit that the Tsar did it every year afterward (we’re sure it will be a lovely tradition for you and your grandma, too). When Alexander III died, his son continued the tradition and commissioned the pricey trinkets for his mother and his wife.

12. For Your Pyromaniac Friend: Fire

It’s going to present a bit of a wrapping challenge, but it will all be worth it when you see your M-80-obsessed friend light up like the Fourth of July sky. But maybe don’t steal it like Prometheus did. The way the story goes, Zeus was hoarding fire for god-use only. Since Prometheus created humans out of clay, he was pretty annoyed that Zeus was being so stingy. He stole fire from the hearth of Zeus and gave it to his little clay people, then was immediately and severely punished for his good deed: Zeus had him chained to a rock, where his liver was eaten from his body by a giant eagle. The organ grew back overnight, so Prometheus suffered the same fate day after day. Just a little something to consider before you give the gift of fire.

13. For That Cousin on Your Dad's Side: An Eagle Made of Beer Can Tabs

It’s thrifty; it’s recycled; it’s a tribute to the United States of America. Your cousin will love it so much, you might even get a PBR and some pork rinds out of the deal. Gerald Ford received just such a gift from a Kentucky Cub Scout group while he was in office. The eagle, made to celebrate America’s bicentennial in 1976, was part of a Presidential Gift exhibit that traveled the presidential library circuit a few years back.

14. For Your Friend Who Lives for Trips to IKEA: A Carpet With Cleopatra Inside

It’s definitely a one-of-a-kind gift: an old, priceless carpet containing an Egyptian queen. Cleopatra needed an audience with Julius Caesar. The only way she could get one, though, was to sneak one. She had her servant roll her up in a carpet - though some historians believe it may have been bed coverings - and deliver her personally to Caesar. It worked: Cleo got her audience with Caesar, received his support in her battle for the Egyptian throne, and eventually gave him a son. You don’t have to go that far, though. The carpet will do.

15. For Your Friend Who Really Loves Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Like, Really Loves. As in, Maybe You Should Consider Calling the Police: A Book Made out of Human Skin—Possibly Your Own

To appease your possibly blood-thirsty friend, try a gift like the one highwayman James Allen gave to the man who finally brought him down. Back in the early 1830s, Allen indiscriminately robbed dozens of people, and was caught only when a man named John Fenno stood up to him and refused to hand over his possessions. When Allen tried to shoot him, the bullet bounced off of Fenno’s belt buckle and Fenno was able to catch his would-be robber. Convicted to 20 years in prison, Allen died after just a few years. Before his death, though, he wrote a full confession of all of his crimes. The day he died in 1837, enough skin was taken from his back to bind a book. It was immediately sent to a bookbinder, who dyed the skin grey and then abided by Allen's twisted request to bind the confession in his own skin. It was then given to John Fenno, as Allen had specified.

You can read it if you want, though I’m not sure you’re getting the full effect if you’re not holding a book made of human skin.

And Possibly the Worst Gift of All-Time...

A Video Featuring Women Biting the Heads Off Snakes and Soldiers Killing Puppies

Do you have a friend who liked to set fire to bugs with a magnifying glass when he was little? Does he now maintain a firm grip on a small country? This gift might be just the ticket. Back in December of 1983, Donald Rumsfeld met with Saddam Hussein as part of President Reagan’s Middle East Envoy. At the end of the meeting, Saddam slipped Rumsfeld a videotape. When Rumsfeld popped the tape in, perhaps hoping it was an advance screening of Footloose, he was stunned: the tape contained three minutes of female Syrian soldiers biting the heads off of snakes, then roasting them and eating them. In the same video, a male soldier holds down a live puppy and stabs it over and over, then tosses the lifeless body aside. The "gift" can be seen online - it’s obviously very graphic, and I won’t watch it, so click at your own risk.

This story originally appeared in 2011.

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5 Things You Didn't Know About Sally Ride
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U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

You know Sally Ride as the first American woman to travel into space. But here are five things you might not know about the astronaut, who passed away five years ago today—on July 23, 2012—at the age of 61.

1. SHE PROVED THERE IS SUCH THING AS A STUPID QUESTION.

When Sally Ride made her first space flight in 1983, she was both the first American woman and the youngest American to make the journey to the final frontier. Both of those distinctions show just how qualified and devoted Ride was to her career, but they also opened her up to a slew of absurd questions from the media.

Journalist Michael Ryan recounted some of the sillier questions that had been posed to Ride in a June 1983 profile for People. Among the highlights:

Q: “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?”
A: “There’s no evidence of that.”

Q: “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?”
A: “How come nobody ever asks (a male fellow astronaut) those questions?"

Forget going into space; Ride’s most impressive achievement might have been maintaining her composure in the face of such offensive questions.

2. SHE MIGHT HAVE BEEN A TENNIS PRO.

When Ride was growing up near Los Angeles, she played more than a little tennis, and she was seriously good at it. She was a nationally ranked juniors player, and by the time she turned 18 in 1969, she was ranked 18th in the whole country. Tennis legend Billie Jean King personally encouraged Ride to turn pro, but she went to Swarthmore instead before eventually transferring to Stanford to finish her undergrad work, a master’s, and a PhD in physics.

King didn’t forget about the young tennis prodigy she had encouraged, though. In 1984 an interviewer playfully asked the tennis star who she’d take to the moon with her, to which King replied, “Tom Selleck, my family, and Sally Ride to get us all back.”

3. HOME ECONOMICS WAS NOT HER BEST SUBJECT.

After retiring from space flight, Ride became a vocal advocate for math and science education, particularly for girls. In 2001 she founded Sally Ride Science, a San Diego-based company that creates fun and interesting opportunities for elementary and middle school students to learn about math and science.

Though Ride was an iconic female scientist who earned her doctorate in physics, just like so many other youngsters, she did hit some academic road bumps when she was growing up. In a 2006 interview with USA Today, Ride revealed her weakest subject in school: a seventh-grade home economics class that all girls had to take. As Ride put it, "Can you imagine having to cook and eat tuna casserole at 8 a.m.?"

4. SHE HAD A STRONG TIE TO THE CHALLENGER.

Ride’s two space flights were aboard the doomed shuttle Challenger, and she was eight months deep into her training program for a third flight aboard the shuttle when it tragically exploded in 1986. Ride learned of that disaster at the worst possible time: she was on a plane when the pilot announced the news.

Ride later told AARP the Magazine that when she heard the midflight announcement, she got out her NASA badge and went to the cockpit so she could listen to radio reports about the fallen shuttle. The disaster meant that Ride wouldn’t make it back into space, but the personal toll was tough to swallow, too. Four of the lost members of Challenger’s crew had been in Ride’s astronaut training class.

5. SHE DIDN'T SELL OUT.

A 2003 profile in The New York Times called Ride one of the most famous women on Earth after her two space flights, and it was hard to argue with that statement. Ride could easily have cashed in on the slew of endorsements, movie deals, and ghostwritten book offers that came her way, but she passed on most opportunities to turn a quick buck.

Ride later made a few forays into publishing and endorsements, though. She wrote or co-wrote more than a half-dozen children’s books on scientific themes, including To Space and Back, and in 2009 she appeared in a print ad for Louis Vuitton. Even appearing in an ad wasn’t an effort to pad her bank account, though; the ad featured an Annie Leibovitz photo of Ride with fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell gazing at the moon and stars. According to a spokesperson, all three astronauts donated a “significant portion” of their modeling fees to Al Gore’s Climate Project.

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5 Surprising Facts About the Battle of Dunkirk
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With the release of Christopher Nolan’s critically acclaimed Dunkirk, the world’s attention is once again focused on the historic events recounted in the film, when a makeshift fleet of British fishing boats, pleasure yachts, and cargo ships helped save 185,000 British soldiers and 130,000 French soldiers from death or capture by German invaders during the Fall of France in May and June 1940. Here are five surprising facts about those heroic days.

1. THE GERMAN ATTACK WAS SUPPOSED TO BE IMPOSSIBLE.

By Weper Hermann, 13 German Mobile Assault Unit - Imperial War Museums, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The main reason France collapsed so quickly in 1940 was the element of surprise enjoyed by its German attackers, thanks to General Erich von Manstein, who proposed an invasion route that was widely believed to be impossible. In Manstein’s plan, the main German column of tanks and motorized infantry would force their way through the forests of Ardennes in southeast Belgium and Luxembourg—a thick, hilly woodland which was supposed to be difficult terrain for tanks, requiring at least five days to cross, according to conventional wisdom based on the experience of the First World War. The French and British assumed that little had changed since the previous conflict, but thanks to field studies and updated maps, Manstein and his colleague General Heinz Guderian realized that a new network of narrow, paved roads would allow just enough room for tanks and trucks to squeeze through. As a result the Germans passed through Ardennes into northern France in just two-and-a-half days, threatening to cut off hundreds of thousands of Allied troops, with only one escape route: the sea.

2. ONE FRENCH WORD WAS BURNED INTO WINSTON CHURCHILL’S MEMORY: “AUCUNE.”

Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The German invasion of France began on May 10, 1940, the same day Winston Churchill became Prime Minister. By May 14, when he paid his first official visit to Britain’s ally, Holland had capitulated and Paris was preparing for evacuation. But an even worse surprise was in store. In one of the most famous passages of military history, Churchill recounted the moment he learned that the French didn’t have any troops in reserve:

"I then asked ‘Where is the strategic reserve?’ and, breaking into French … ‘Ou est la mass de manoeuvre?’ General Gamelin turned to me and, with a shake of the head and a shrug, replied. ‘Aucune.’ [There is none] … I was dumbfounded. What were we to think of the Great French Army and its highest chief? It had never occurred to me than any commanders … would have left themselves unprovided with a mass of manoeuvre … This was one of the greatest surprises I have had in my life.”

3. HITLER MADE A FATAL MISTAKE.

On May 24, 1940, the Allied troops on the French and Belgian coast had been totally surrounded by powerful German tank columns, rendering them essentially defenseless against the impending German onslaught. And then came a brief reprieve, as the attackers suddenly stopped for 48 hours, allowing the British to dig in and create a defensive perimeter, setting the stage for the evacuation.

For reasons that still aren’t clear, Hitler—over the protests of his own generals and to the bafflement of historians—had ordered Guderian to halt for two days to rest and resupply. It’s true the German troops were worn out after two weeks of fighting, and Hitler may have worried about a repeat of 1914, when exhausted German troops were forced to withdraw at the Marne. He may also have been swayed by Hermann Göring, chief of the German Luftwaffe, who boasted that air power alone could destroy the helpless Allied forces at Dunkirk. Less likely is the speculation that Hitler purposefully “let the Allies go” to appear magnanimous or merciful as a prelude to peace negotiations (which was not really in keeping with his character). In the end we will probably never know why Hitler choked.

4. GERMAN DIVE-BOMBERS WERE EQUIPPED WITH SIRENS TO SPREAD TERROR.

Among many examples of Germany’s evil genius for psychological warfare, one of the most famous was the decision to equip its Ju 87 dive bombers with air-powered sirens that emitted a shrieking, unearthly wail as the plane went into attack. The siren, known as the “Jericho Trumpet,” was intended to spread terror among enemy troops and civilians on the ground—and it worked. To this day the Jericho Trumpet is one of the most recognizable, and terrifying, sounds of war. It was certainly one of the lasting impressions of the Dunkirk evacuation for ordinary troops caught beneath the German bombs. Lieutenant Elliman, a British gunner who was waiting to be evacuated on Malo-les-Bains beach, later recalled the Stukas “diving, zooming, screeching, and wheeling over our heads like a flock of huge infernal seagulls.”

5. THE FRENCH FOUGHT A HOPELESS BATTLE TO COVER THE EVACUATION.

By Saidman (Mr), War Office official photographer — Photograph H 1636 from the Imperial War Museums, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Although Churchill and other Brits were quick to criticize the failure of France’s generals during the Fall of France, many ordinary French soldiers and officers fought bravely and honorably—and one hopeless “last stand” in particular probably helped enable the successful evacuation of Dunkirk.

As British and French troops withdrew to Dunkirk, 40 miles to the southeast French troops in two corps of the French First Army staged a ferocious defense against seven German divisions from May 28 to May 31, 1940, refusing to surrender and mounting several attempts to break out despite being heavily outnumbered (110,000 to 40,000). The valiant French effort, led by General Jean-Baptiste Molinié, helped tie up three German tank divisions under Erwin Rommel, enabling the British Expeditionary Force and the remaining troops of the French First Army to retreat and dig in at Dunkirk, ultimately saving another 100,000 Allied troops.

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