Wednesday Jun. 22, 2016

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Summer Kitchen

In June’s high light she stood at the sink
            With a glass of wine,
And listened for the bobolink,
And crushed garlic in late sunshine.

I watched her cooking, from my chair.
            She pressed her lips
Together, reached for kitchenware,
And tasted sauce from her fingertips.

“It’s ready now. Come on,” she said.
            “You light the candle.”
We ate, and talked, and went to bed,
And slept. It was a miracle.

“Summer Kitchen” by Donald Hall from The Selected Poems of Donald Hall. © Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It was on this day in 1944 that the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944 became law — a law better known as the GI Bill. It was signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt.

The GI Bill provided a series of benefits for returning veterans: education; unemployment pay; and low-interest loans for houses, farms, or businesses. Although it turned out be a very popular and long-lasting piece of legislation, it almost didn't pass at all. The House and Senate fought about various parts of it. Some legislators didn't want to extend unemployment benefits to veterans because they worried it would stop people from looking for work. Others didn't think veterans would fit in at colleges, which had historically been attended mostly by privileged people.

There was pressure on the government to figure out some solution, to avoid a repeat of what had happened to veterans returning from World War I. The Bonus Act, passed in 1924, was supposed to give World War I veterans a bonus based on their length of duty, but most didn't actually receive it. In 1932, a group of poor, angry, and hungry veterans marched on Washington to demand their money. The standoff lasted weeks, and the number of veterans rose to almost 20,000, many of them living in makeshift camps constructed from scraps and boxes. After the Senate voted against a bill to give the veterans their bonus immediately, the veterans ended up pushed out of the city by federal troops while their camp was burned. Needless to say, it didn't reflect well on the government, which was anxious to do better this time around. Beyond that, they were very concerned about the potential for high levels of unemployment after World War II, and possibly another economic depression.

The GI Bill was a huge success, especially in the realm of education. At its peak in 1947, 49 percent of students admitted to college were veterans. Many institutions of all types and sizes — from Stanford to the University of Georgia to Rutgers — nearly doubled the size of their student body. Of the 16 million World War II veterans, almost 8 million took advantage of education and training programs.

Not everyone was thrilled with the new bill. Before World War II, a small percentage of Americans attended college — in 1937, 15 percent of 18- to 20-year-olds were enrolled — and most of them were from wealthy families. Speaking about the GI Bill, the president of the University of Chicago said, "Colleges and universities will find themselves converted into educational hobo jungles." A dean at Harvard complained, "There is a kind of unhealthy determination to get ahead, a grim competitive spirit, an emphasis on individual careerism and success which is disturbing ... the lights are burning very late and there is not much leisurely talk or fellowship or group spirit." People were surprised when the veterans turned out to be successful students. In 1947, the education editor of The New York Times wrote: "Here is the most astonishing fact in the history of American higher education ... the GI's are hogging the honor rolls and the Dean's lists; they are walking away with the highest marks in all of their courses."

Joseph Heller, the author of Catch-22, went to New York University on the GI Bill, as did Frank McCourt. The poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and novelist Norman Mailer studied at the Sorbonne in Paris.

When signing the bill, Roosevelt said, "The members of the armed forces have been compelled to make greater economic sacrifice and every other kind of sacrifice than the rest of us, and they are entitled to definite action to help take care of their special problems."

It's the birthday of novelist Erich Maria Remarque (books by this author), born in Osnabrück, Germany (1898), who is best known for his anti-war novel, All Quiet on the Western Front. At the age of 18, Remarque was drafted into the German army to fight in World War I. He was wounded five times. In 1929, the novel he had been working on for 10 years was published. All Quiet on the Western Front is the story of one man's experience in the war; some critics called it the best anti-war novel ever written. The book was an immediate international success; however, it was banned in Germany, and in 1938, Remarque's German citizenship was revoked. He became a citizen of United States in 1947 and was married to American film star Paulette Goddard. He died in 1970.

It's the birthday of children's book author Harriett Mulford Lothrop (books by this author), born in New Haven, Connecticut (1844). Written under the pen name Margaret Sidney, The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew was published in 1880. It was an idealized story about a young widow with five perfect children, who, although they live in poverty, resolved all their problems with constant cheer. Readers kept writing to ask what happened to the Little Peppers as they got older, so Sidney wrote 10 sequels in which the girls all grow up to have happy children of their own, and the boys all become successful businessmen with cheerful, dutiful families.

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