Best of America

25 Uplifting, Quirky Things That Could Only Happen in America

It's the Best of America!

group photo with USA lettersMiller Mobley for Reader's Digest

Only in America…

8. … is a Bloody Mary a meal (Milwaukee, Wisconsin)

Nothing screams America more than excess. And nothing tastes more like brunch than a Bloody Mary. Combine the two, and you get the country’s latest trend in libations. The Cove in Leland, Michigan, serves its concoction with a regional delicacy, a smoked chub. In Minneapolis, the Icehouse’s Bloody Homer (as in Simpson) features candied bacon and a bacon-bedecked donut. The version at Sobelman’s Pub & Grill in Milwaukee is crowned with a Brussels sprout, celery, onion, mushroom, cherry tomato, lemon, pickle, shrimp, sausage, cheese, olive, green onion, asparagus, and—the pièce de résistance—a bacon cheeseburger slider.

 

9. … does a 12-year-old build a Braille printer from LEGOs (San Jose, California)

After his parents received a flyer seeking donations for the visually impaired, preteen Shubham Banerjee went online to research what it’s like to be blind. He was indignant to learn that Braille printers cost at least $2,000. “Capitalizing on disadvantaged people did not seem right,” he says. So he decided to tackle the problem with what he knew best: building with LEGOs. Shubham worked with a LEGO Mindstorms EV3, an advanced set that can be used to make programmable toys like robots. After three weeks of after-school tinkering, Shubham had developed Braigo, a printer that creates Braille patterns by using a needle to punch small holes in paper. The total cost of his machine: $350. Shubham put his plans online as an open-source invention for other innovators. Now he’s busy working on a top-secret project with LEGO.

 

10. … do we leave bananas at a grave (Huntsville, Alabama)

Next time you visit Huntsville, be sure to pack a bunch—of bananas, that is. The city is home to the grave site of a special astronaut: squirrel monkey Miss Baker. In 1959, Miss Baker and Able, a rhesus monkey, were the first primates to safely return from space (they experienced nine minutes of weightlessness). Miss Baker lived at Huntsville’s U.S. Space & Rocket Center until her death in 1984, and visitors still leave hundreds of bananas annually for this little space simian.

 

bald eagle
Miller Mobley for Reader’s Digest

11. … do bald eagles make public appearances (Paso Robles, California)

Unlike other diplomats, Thunder the bald eagle doesn’t rely on words to get his point across—his glare is enough. The victim of an oil spill and electrocution, the raptor makes more than 100 appearances a year across America as a representative of our national bird. Thunder’s injuries prevent his return to the wild, so the 11-year-old lives at Conservation Ambassadors, a California nonprofit refuge that houses permanently impaired animals and advocates for protecting their kind in the wild. “People care about animals, but it can take a kick in the butt to get them to act,” says David Jackson (pictured on page 71), the organization’s CEO and one of the spokesbird’s favorite handlers. “After meeting Thunder, everyone wants to help save them.”

 

12. … does a janitor become principal (Port Barre, Louisiana)

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In 1979, Gabe Sonnier (pictured on page 71) graduated fifth in his high school class and enrolled in college to study engineering. But money was scarce in his family, so he dropped out to help raise his siblings, taking a custodial job in 1981 at Port Barre Elementary School. His work ethic impressed the principal, who one day dropped this shocker: “He said, ‘I’d rather see you grading papers than picking them up,’” recalls Sonnier. But Sonnier, a father of two, waited 19 years until his youngest had completed high school before returning to college in 2000.

After eight years of mopping during the day and attending classes at night, Sonnier got a degree and a position as a third-grade teacher at Port Barre. And when the principal retired in November 2013, the one man who knew everything about the school—from fixing leaks to solving multiplication tables—landed the job. “Whatever your circumstance, it doesn’t have to end there. You can finish strong,” says Sonnier, now 53. But don’t be fooled by his talk about finishing—this principal is just getting started.

 

marvel character
Courtesy Marvel

13. … is a Muslim teen a superhero (Jersey City, New Jersey)

In February, the Marvel comic book universe—home to heavy hitters like Captain America, Spider-Man, Thor, the Hulk, and Iron Man—expanded to include a unique new superhero: 16-year-old Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American Muslim from Jersey City. Kamala possesses the power to shape-shift into anyone she chooses.

Like other American teenagers, she finds herself examining her relationship with her religion and with her very traditional family. According to her cocreator, Seattle writer (and Muslim) G. Willow Wilson, Kamala is both extraordinary and average—a girl struggling to discover who she is and who she wants to be. In other words, she’s the perfect superhero for today’s multicultural America.

 

14. … do oysters have foster parents (Chesapeake Bay, Maryland & Virginia)

If you think “gardening” means only roots, soil, and buds, you need to open your mind. Today, America’s most unusual volunteer gardeners are growing oysters underwater to replenish our shellfish population after a dramatic drop in supply. Oysters are aquatic all-stars: They filter the water and form reefs to create habitats for marine life.

In Maryland and Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay, Alabama’s Mobile Bay, and Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay, nonprofits provide instruction and a cage of itty-bitty baby oysters—each smaller than a fingernail—to marine gardeners. The requirements: access to a dock or a pier and the time and interest to monitor their charges. After one year, the mature shellfish are reintroduced into the bay. But gardeners find it’s hard to stop after one harvest. “People get addicted to seeing their oysters grow,” says Don Webster of the University of Maryland Extension.

 

15. … do we respond with such feeling (Omaha, Nebraska)

Police sergeant Brian Smith, 52, is known for brightening the station house with his smile. So when he made the offhand remark to coworker Captain Shayna Ray that he’d never received a Valentine’s Day card as a kid, she was determined to make it up to him. While Smith was out on vacation in early February, Ray posted a message on the department’s Facebook page telling people about his 20-plus years of service and encouraging them to send him a card. Her post was widely shared across the United States, and the station’s mailbox exploded with hundreds of pink and red envelopes. When February 14 arrived, officers presented the sergeant with the haul, and he choked up. “What touched me most was receiving the handmade cards from school­children,” Smith says.

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16. … does an icon roar back to life (Spirit Lake, Iowa)

In 1901, the first mass-produced American-made motorcycles were rolled out by Indian Motor­cycles. They quickly became the nation’s ride: The New York Police Department’s first motorcycle squad hopped on Indians to chase criminals, and our armed forces used them during both World Wars. But by 1953, rival Harley-Davidson had captured the market, and Indian ceased production.

Numerous attempts to revive the company were unsuccessful until Polaris Industries acquired it in 2011, debuting three new Indian models last year (see page 70). Like the original, the 21st-century Indians are made in the U.S.A. (engines are manufactured in Osceola, Wisconsin; the rest of the bike is assembled in Spirit Lake, Iowa). The brand’s rise and fall is a clas­sic American story of resilience and rebirth, explains Steve Menneto, Polaris’s vice president of motorcycles. “Sometimes we get knocked down, but we always get back up,” he says.

 

17. … can one woman save a city in crisis (Marietta, Georgia)

Last January’s snowstorm in Atlanta will go down in record books as the city’s most paralyzing weather in recent years—but also as one of the most ingenious uses of social media. Tech consultant Michelle Sollicito watched how a storm immobilized her city, and she was moved to immediately start a Facebook group to link those marooned by the weather to shelter, fuel, food, transportation, and other assistance offered by Good Samaritans.

Called SnowedOutAtlanta, its membership swelled to more than 50,000 within 24 hours. Strangers saved one another: A pregnant mom and her child found a place to stay; a man with a heart problem was taken to the hospital; and a stranded, scared 71-year-old woman received blankets and hot cocoa. “[Michelle Sollicito] has done more for our city than any official,” one resident told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The biggest thing I learned is that everyone can do something to help people in a crisis,” Sollicito, 46, says. Grateful people offered her gifts—a trip, a car, a Disney vacation, even a house—but she asked them to donate to the Red Cross instead.

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