Pierre Boullet, Evgeny Dragunov, Joseph Walker and Louis Riel Day

Some days, this blog writes itself (don’t I wish).  This 20 February has a breathtaking array of events to choose from: the enthronement of Edward VI in 1547; the beginning of the US Post Office in 1792; the death of WIllie Lincoln in 1862; the orbiting of John Glenn in 1962; the election of Margaret Thatcher to lead the Conservatives in Britain in 1975.  But today, we’re going to note the birthdays of three rather notable people, and an ambiguous Canadian.

Boullet’s ninth book, Monkey Planet, was turned into a different story on film–Planet of the Apes, which became a cult/franchise all in itself.

Pierre François Marie Louis Boulle was born on 20 February 1912 in Avignon, France, and trained as an electrical engineer.  He was working in Malaya when WWII started, and joined the French Army in Indochina.  When Germany occupied France he joined the Free French in Singapore. Working as a secret agent, Boullet was captured by the Vichy in the Mekong Delta region and put in a forced labor camp for the rest of the war. After his return to France in 1949, he began to write.  Drawing on his own war experiences and those of some of his fellow prisoners, Boullet’s third book was the semi-fictional novel known in English as The Bridge Over the River Kwai, an international best-seller made into a film by Sir David Lean in 1957, which also won awards and popular acclaim (and the shortest Academy Award acceptance speech in history–Merci).  Boullet’s ninth book, Monkey Planet, was turned into a different story on film–Planet of the Apes, which became a cult/franchise all in itself. In all Boullet wrote 24 books, seven short story collections, and five nonfiction books (including one on his experiences in labor camps in the Mekong: My Own River Kwai).  Boullet died 30 January 1994, at age 81, in Paris.

In 1959, Dragunov’s legendary semi-automatic sniper rifle, the SVD, was adopted for Soviet service.

Evgeny (or Yevgeny) Fyodorovich Dragunov was born 20 February 1920 at Izhevsk, Russia, into a family of gunsmiths.  By the time of the Great Fatherland War in 1941 (what the Russians call their part of WWII) Dragunov was a senior armorer in the Red Army, known for adapting non-Soviet weapons to Soviet needs and ammunition. After the war, he went back to gunsmithing in the civilian world,  building an Olympic gold-winning rifle for the biathlon in 1950. In 1959, Dragunov’s legendary semi-automatic sniper rifle, the SVD, was adopted for Soviet service. In 1973 his design for the update of the venerable AK-74, which was not adopted for that weapon, but the trigger mechanism inspired the one in the PP-71 submachine gun.  Dragunov died 4 August 1991 at age 71 in Izhevsk.

In the X-15, Walker was the first to fly above the Kármán line, and thus technically became the first American to enter outer space (as long as that 100 kilometer/62 mile altitude is accepted) on 19 July 1963.

Joseph Albert Walker was born on 20 February 1921 in Washington, Pennsylvania. Walker earned a bachelor’s degree in physics in 1942 before joining the Army Air Forces.  He flew P-38 Lightnings and the reconnaissance version, the F-5, in the Pacific during WWII, joining the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) as a physicist.  It wasn’t long before Walker was back in the cockpit, the first to fly the Bell X-1 and a number of other rocket fuel tanks with controls. When NACA became NASA, Walker was the first test pilot, and the first NASA pilot to fly the X-15. In the X-15, Walker was the first to fly above the Kármán line, and thus technically became the first American to enter outer space (as long as that 100 kilometer/62 mile altitude is accepted) on 19 July 1963. Walker was killed on 8 June 1966, flying an F-104 chase plane that collided with one of the only two XB-70 Valkyrie bombers ever built over Barstow, California.

Riel’s father was a Metis-of French and Native Canadian heritage; his mother a French colonist.  Riel took up the priesthood early in life but lost interest when his father died before young Louis finished his schooling.

The third Monday in February, for some inexplicable reason, is Louis Riel Day in Manitoba. Louis Davis Riel is traditionally viewed as the founder of Manitoba, and his ambiguous legacy is shrouded in legend. Riel was born near modern Winnipeg in what was then the Red River Colony of Rupert’s Land –the Hudson Bay drainage of Canada–in 1844.  Riel’s father was a Metis-of French and Native Canadian heritage; his mother a French colonist.  Riel took up the priesthood early in life but lost interest when his father died before young Louis finished his schooling. He drifted around Canada and the United States as far south as Chicago before returning to the Red River Colony in 1868.  Timing is everything: in October of that year he led a group of Metis that disrupted an English survey party.  Emerging as a leader not only of the French-speaking Metis (descendants of an admixture of Native Canadian and  European immigrants) but of Francophones in general, Riel led the first “rebellion” from 1868, not only disrupting the survey but claiming that the dissolution of the seigneurial land-holding system they had known for centuries would not be tolerated. After seizing Fort Garry, then losing it again, the rebellion’s leaders were arrested, tried and punished–except for Riel, who managed to escape to the US. After several years in exile, Riel returned, served briefly as a Member of Parliament, formed the Provisional Government of Saskatchewan with himself as president, and led yet another rebellion in 1885. He was captured after the second rising collapsed, tried and sentenced to hang for treason, and was hanged  16 November 1885.

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