Sunday Oct. 1, 2017

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History Lesson

My grandfather left school at fourteen
to work odd jobs until he was old enough
to join his Lithuanian kin chipping
anthracite out of the Pennsylvania hills.
Nine hours a day with five hundred feet
of rock over his head, then an hour’s
ride home on the company bus
to a dinner of boiled cabbage and chicken.
When the second big war broke
he headed “sout,” as he pronounced it,
for better work in the blast furnaces
churning out steel along the shores
of the Chesapeake. Thirty-two years
and half an index finger later he retired
to a brick rancher he built with his own hands
just outside the Baltimore city line.
The spring he got cancer and I got a BA
from a private college we stood under
a tree in his backyard while he copped
a smoke out of my grandmother’s sight.
“Tell me, Pop,” I said, wanting to strike up
a conversation, “how did you like
working in the mills all those years?”
He studied my neatly pressed white shirt,
took a long drag on his cigarette and spit a fleck
of tobacco near my shoes. “Like,” he said,
“didn’t have a thing to do with it.”

“History Lesson” by Jeff Coomer from A Potentially Quite Remarkable Thursday. © Last Leaf Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this day in 1890, Yosemite National Park was established by the U.S. Congress. Yosemite was one of the first national parks in America, and has continued to serve as a model for all that came after.

It’s the birthday of classical pianist Vladimir Horowitz, born in Ukraine (1904).  When he was eight years old, he began studying music at the Kiev Conservatory. He got his big break in 1926 when he played Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto with only a half-hour’s notice. He got a standing ovation and became an overnight success. When he had already established a secure reputation, the only major composer who had not opened up to him was Arturo Toscanini. After they met, Horowitz eventually won over Toscanini with his charm, and later married Toscanini’s daughter.  In 1943, the two performed a concert in Carnegie Hall that raised over ten million dollars for World War II efforts.

Horowitz often had trouble with the English language.  When he met Lou Henry Hoover, the wife of President Herbert Hoover, he said, “Madam, I am delightful.”

In 1986, he returned to his native Russia to give a series of concerts. It was his first return visit in sixty years.

Today is the birthday of British actor and singer Julie Andrews (books by this author), born in a suburb of London (1935). Her parents first noticed her unusual voice when she was singing “Strawberry Fair” with a group of children and her voice floated over the others, since she was singing in a higher octave than the rest. She started taking voice lessons with a retired opera singer when her doctor discovered she had a “nearly adult larynx.” Her mother and stepfather were singers who performed for British troops during WWII, and she went on tour with them at age 11.

She moved to New York and began a career on Broadway at 19, and she starred in the musical My Fair Lady. In 1964, she made her film debut with Mary Poppins, which became Disney’s greatest box-office success. The next year, she starred in The Sound of Music, which was 20th Century Fox’s biggest hit until the premiere of Star Wars.

Andrews’ voice got hoarse while performing a show in 1997, and her doctors told her she had nodules in her throat. After the surgery to remove them, her voice never reached the same range, and she mostly stopped singing. Andrews was devastated and had to learn to see herself as more than just a beautiful singer. These days she spends most of her time writing children’s books with her daughter, and she’s published over 30 books. She said: “I was bemoaning my fate to [my daughter] one day and saying, ‘You have no idea what [losing my voice] is like.’ And she said, ‘Oh, Mom, I know it must be terrible — but now you’ve found a different way of using your voice.’ What she said hit true right when it mattered, and I felt this great sort of weight drop away, and then I was able to begin recovery.”

Most people think of Julie Andrews as extremely proper and squeaky clean because of the most famous roles she’s played, including her more recent role as the queen in The Princess Diaries. Although she disagrees with this image, she has a sense of humor about it. She once said, “Sometimes I’m so sweet, even I can’t stand it.”

The Free Speech Movement was launched in Berkeley, California, on this date in 1964. It was the first mass civil disobedience protest held on a college campus during the 1960s. The University of California at Berkeley had a policy against allowing political activity or fundraising on campus, with the exception of the established Democrat and Republican student clubs. Jack Weinberg was one of several graduate students who had been to the South to join the civil rights movement. They came back to UC Berkeley to spread the word about the movement, and they set up an information table on the steps of Sproul Hall to mobilize their fellow students. University officials asked Weinberg to stop, and he refused. They called the police, who put him in the back of a squad car when he declined to show them his identification. Students quickly surrounded the police car and staged a sit-in, keeping the car from driving off. Weinberg’s fellow student activist, Mario Savio, climbed on the police car and used it as an impromptu podium. Weinberg ended up being held in the squad car for 32 hours. A journalist interviewed him and tried to get him to admit that the students were the puppets of older agitators; Weinberg denied it, and famously said that the movement’s members didn’t trust anyone over 30.

Some of the original protestors now say that they think the movement went too far, but 50 years after the original protest, Weinberg defended it. “Democracy’s messy,” he said. “When people have the right to express themselves and organize for whatever they are, you’re always going to find some things that you find objectionable … But I think that American society is much better off today than it was in the ’50s when there was very little freedom of any kind. Unless you were dressed the right way and spoke the right way and thought the right way, you were marginalized.”

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