Wednesday Mar. 16, 2016

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Goodbye to James Garner

Fans loved him as Rockford, Maverick,
a man’s man, had your back, cool,
did the right thing. I loved him
for being Doris Day’s husband
in a movie I cut class to see,
fifth grade, played at the Riviera,
only old men and me during the day,
went alone told no one, but I had a gigantic
crush, he was an ob/gyn, she was a mom,
marriage in jeopardy, couples in movies
stayed together in the sixties, while out
in the world it was all falling apart, women
poised to flip their lives, marching into a world
of miniskirts, riots, shame, pill box hats, flinging
our boxy pink suit jackets and pumps into the sunset,
not even James Garner could have saved us, and this week
more unrest, more wars, I’m stuck on the headline
James Garner Dead. When I was ten I needed a man
I could count on—even a man holding aces and eights.

“Goodbye to James Garner” by Kim Dower from Last Train to the Missing Planet. © Red Hen Press, 2016. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of the man whose most famous line was “Take my wife — please”: comedian Henny Youngman, born in London (1906). He said, “I was so ugly when I was born, the doctor slapped my mother.” He grew up in New York City, and he made his first appearance at an amateur night when he was 16. His father didn’t approve — he called the cops and had his son pulled off the stage, and sent him to vocational school. But Youngman persevered, and after he became a comedian, he traveled an average of 500,000 miles a year to perform. He delivered one-liners while playing a 19th-century violin, telling at least 50 jokes in an eight-minute routine. He said, “If a joke is too hard to visualize, I tell the young comics, then what the hell good is it?”

He said, “When I read about the evils of drinking, I gave up reading.”

And, “I once wanted to become an atheist, but I gave up — they have no holidays.”

And, “If at first you don’t succeed ... so much for skydiving.”

It’s the birthday of poet César Vallejo (books by this author), born in Santiago de Chuco, Peru (1892). As a young man, he worked as a miner and then as a cashier at a sugar plantation that employed slave laborers. He was horrified by the exploitation of poor workers, and became a socialist.

In 1920, he was at a hometown festival that deteriorated into lootings and arson. He was mistakenly arrested and thrown in jail, and he spent the next four months writing the poetry that would appear in his first major collection, Trilce (1922).

After he was released from prison, he moved to Paris, where he slept on subway trains and park benches for months. He was sick and depressed, and he couldn’t find a steady job. He wrote to his brother: “I have the desire to work and to live my life with dignity. I am not a bohemian: poverty is very painful, and it’s no part for me, unlike for others. [...] My will veers between the point at which one is reduced to the sole desire for death and the intention of conquering the world by sword and fire.”

Today is the birthday of American novelist Alice Hoffman (1952) (books by this author), whose best-selling novels, like Practical Magic and The Dovekeepers, are a blend of magical realism, romance, and irony. Hoffman grew up on Long Island, where her Russian grandmother kept her entertained with fairytales like the Baba Yaga, about a witch who lives in a house on chicken legs. Hoffman’s childhood wasn’t easy: her father abandoned the family, but he left a box of books behind that changed Hoffman’s life. It was full of science fiction books by Ray Bradbury, and Hoffman devoured them. She says: “Ray became my literary father. He was the one who taught me about the world.” She also discovered a copy of The Catcher in The Rye on her mother’s bookshelf. Salinger’s book about a morose teenager influenced her greatly. Hoffman says: “I hadn’t known that a book could speak so directly to a reader. After that, I knew what I wanted to do with my life.”

Hoffman’s memoir, Survival Lessons (2013), is about what she learned while enduring treatment for breast cancer. She says, “It was a letter written to myself reminding myself of all the things that matter, and all of the reasons to go on.”

About writing, she says, “When I finish any project, it feels like a dream, and writing — whether it’s fiction or nonfiction — is very similar to dreaming.”

Robert Goddard launched the first liquid-fueled rocket 90 years ago today (1926). Goddard, who was born in 1882, had been interested in outer space since he read H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. While he was a student at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Goddard began experimenting with a rocket that was powered by gunpowder. His rocket produced a lot of smoke, which alarmed the students and faculty who shared the physics building with him. He later had successful outdoor tests with powder rockets, some of which shot up 500 feet. But powder wasn’t very energy efficient, and Goddard eventually began researching ways to use liquid fuel instead.

In the early 1900s, space travel wasn’t on the government’s radar. Goddard had a hard time getting federal grants for his research, and he usually ended up paying for his rockets out of his own pocket. Finally, he received a $5,000 grant from the Smithsonian Institution, which enabled him to do research and publish a paper on “A Method for Reaching Extreme Altitudes” in 1920. In the paper, he speculated that rockets could be used to reach the moon. The New York Times heard about his paper and ridiculed him. He became a laughingstock overnight, and people called him “the Moon Man,” but he said, “Every vision is a joke until the first man accomplishes it; once realized, it becomes commonplace.” He never held a very high opinion of the press after that. Goddard didn’t give up, and on this date in 1926, he completed the first successful launch of his liquid-fueled rocket in Auburn, Massachusetts. The 10-foot rocket achieved a height of 41 feet and an average speed of 60 miles per hour.

Unfortunately, Goddard died of cancer in 1945, 12 years before the Soviet Union successfully launched its Sputnik satellite. After the successful launch of NASA’s Apollo 11 spacecraft in 1969, the Times printed a retraction of their ridicule of Goddard and his vision.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®