Best of America

25 Uplifting, Quirky Things That Could Only Happen in America

It's the Best of America!

dancer
Miller Mobley for Reader’s Digest

18. … do we get everyone out on the dance floor (Tampa, Florida)

Merry Lynn Morris has the simple goal to release everyone’s inner dancer. The Rolling Dance Chair, which Morris, 38, has invented, allows people with disabilities to move fluidly across the floor. Standard wheelchairs travel jerkily and in straight lines. This chair reacts to the motion of a smartphone that’s placed on the body, so that when a person leans left, it rolls left—it can even spin.

Morris, a former professional ballet dancer who teaches at the University of South Florida, was inspired in part by her father, who became disabled after a car accident. She wanted a way for wheelchair-bound people like him to enjoy moving to music again. Her father never tried the chair—she completed a prototype in 2012, and he’d passed away in 2008—but she has used it with kids who have spina bifida and cerebral palsy. She has been thrilled by their delight and reports, “One little girl said to me afterward, ‘This makes me feel free!’”

 

19. … will the first lady actually answer the phone on vacation (Colorado Springs, Colorado)

In 1955, a typo in a Sears ad promising calls to Saint Nick directed children to the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD). The Air Force colonel who answered played along, and since then, CONAD and its successor, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), have taken Christmas Eve calls from young ones worldwide who have urgent queries like “Am I on the ‘nice’ list?” and “Will I see Rudolph’s nose?”

Last year, kids calling on December 24 may have heard a familiar voice on the other end. For the past four years while on her family vacation in Hawaii, First Lady Michelle Obama has volunteered for the NORAD Santa hotline.

But it takes many elves: In 2013, more than 1,250 American and Canadian military personnel and civilians at Peterson Air Force Base fielded 117,000 calls and 11,000 e-mails. One volunteer told the American Press Service that his favorite call was from a little boy calling from India: “He asked where Santa was, and when I told him he’d passed through India once but was coming back, he screamed, ‘Oh no, I better get to bed!’ and slammed the phone down.”

anatal josepho and dog
Anatol Josepho, 1928-30, International Center or Photography, Gift of the Josepho Family, 2008

20. … did we pioneer the selfie

• 1839: Philadelphia photographer Robert Cornelius takes one of the first photographic self-portraits.
• 1925: Anatol Josepho (left) invents the photo booth, bringing the selfie into the public sphere.
• 1953: Jacqueline Kennedy and then-Senator John F. Kennedy are only two of the booth’s many famous boosters.
• 1966: Astronaut Buzz Aldrin snaps himself on a Gemini XII spacewalk; he claims it was the first space selfie.
• 2011: San Franciscan Jennifer Lee posts the first self-portrait with the #selfie hashtag on Instagram.
• 2013: Selfies snowball, and pet, gym, and other themed selfies emerge (LeBron James, above).
• 2014: As Academy Awards host, Ellen DeGeneres arranges a seemingly spontaneous star-studded selfie, only to have it unmasked a day later as part of a promotion for Samsung.

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21. … do we have the best-read shelter cats around (Birdsboro, Pennsylvania)

Kristy Rodriguez’s ten-year-old son, Sean, was having some difficulty reading. So last August, after hearing about shelters where kids read books to dogs, Rodriguez, coordinator for the Animal Rescue League of Berks County, brought Sean in to work to meet the group’s cats. He read Goosebumps books out loud to them, and his skills and confidence soared after just a few visits. Impressed, Rodriguez started Book Buddies, a program in which children read to a curious if twitchy and somewhat distractible audience. It’s a win-win situation for the kids and cats. “Coming into a shelter is a stressful experience for any animal,” says shelter spokeswoman Beth Ireland. “Book Buddies gives them an opportunity to be loved.” Another young reader, Harlan, seven, says that when he enters the cat room with book in hand, its feline residents “get excited and start to purr.” As a Book Buddy, Harlan says with pride, “I can read all by myself now, and I read to myself too.”

 

22. … do we make our missions marketable (Santa Cruz, California)

Chris Bley, 40, has fused his two passions, rock climbing and environmental protection, into one very savvy business. As the owner of Rope Partner, a company he launched in Santa Cruz in 2001, he employs climbers and other outdoor enthusiasts to service wind turbines. Driving around America, he says, “I noticed turbines were getting taller, so I knew that they’d need people who are unafraid of heights to maintain them.”

Today, Bley has 50 workers, a number that grows as wind energy’s use expands. “I tell [people] my office is 300 feet in the air,” said employee Terrence Green in the Santa Cruz Sentinel. Now try topping that.

 

23. … will a passerby stop to teach a homeless man to code (New York City, New York)

Handout or hand-up? Last summer, software engineer Patrick McConlogue gave homeless Leo Grand a choice between the two, offering him either $100 or two months of coding lessons. Grand, who’d been living on the streets since losing his job in 2011, went for the instruction. McConlogue, 23, provided Grand, 37, with a basic laptop and three coding books and tutored him for an hour in the mornings. After three and a half months, Grand had learned enough to create Trees for Cars, a smartphone app released in December that helps commuters organize carpools. “I dig the mental challenges,” Grand told tech website Mashable. Meanwhile, McConlogue has launched a mentoring group to match experienced programmers with aspiring coders.

 

24. … do we hold the key to everything (Estes Park, Colorado)

If you’re looking for a key to Buckingham Palace, you don’t have to cross the pond to find it. Simply check in to the Baldpate Inn on Twin Sisters Mountain, owner of some 30,000 keys, which hang in a room where they’re organized by state and country with a descriptive tag on each. Among them are signposts of history, such as keys to one of Hitler’s desks, to Dr. Frankenstein’s castle in Romania, and to the U.S. Capitol.

jetsonorama sitting on building
Ramona Rosales

25. … does a doctor beautify buildings
Shonto, Arizona

Drivers traveling through the Navajo reservation en route to the Grand Canyon may be startled to see massive faces staring at them: a quizzical child, a wrinkled elder, a laughing woman. These portraits are the work of Jetsonorama, or Dr. Chip Thomas as he’s known at his day job as an Indian Health Service physician. Since 2009, he has taken and enlarged photos of tribal members, which he prints and mounts on buildings. His aim: to make onlookers pause and appreciate the Navajo. “People said they’d driven through the reservation but didn’t have a sense of the residents,” says Dr. Thomas, 57. “Since I started my art, I’ve heard about visitors stopping to look, meeting locals, and being invited home for a meal. It’s a bridge between cultures.”

 

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