Tuesday Dec. 2, 2014

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Promissory Note

If I die before you
which is all but certain
then in the moment
before you will see me
become someone dead
in a transformation
as quick as a shooting star’s
I will cross over into you
and ask you to carry
not only your own memories
but mine too until you
too lie down and erase us
both together into oblivion.

"Promissory Note" by Galway Kinnell, from Strong Is Your Hold. © Houghton Mifflin, 2006. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

New York's La Guardia Airport opened on this date in 1939.

As the story goes, the idea for the airport came from Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. He was returning home from vacation and, as a publicity stunt, loudly refused to get off the plane in Newark, New Jersey. He said that his ticket said "New York" and New York is where he would get off the plane. TWA flew him to Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, so all was well for the moment, but La Guardia had accomplished what he set out to do. He used the ensuing press conference to proclaim that the residents of New York City needed a public airport that was of an adequate size and in a convenient location to Manhattan. He found what he was looking for in Flushing, Queens. There was a small private airfield on the site already; prior to that, the land had housed the Gala Amusement Park. La Guardia bought the airfield in 1937. He enlisted the aid of the federal government to build and pay for the new airport; the government was happy to provide both, since it wanted to expand the country's transportation system and it was also looking for projects to employ workers under the Works Progress Administration.

The plot of land wasn't big enough for the airport that planners had in mind. They bought up what adjacent land they could, but they were still short their goal of 558 acres. The only way to expand was out into Flushing Bay. Workers built a metal framework out into the water, and filled it in with land from Rikers Island and a nearby garbage dump. The metal framework is so extensive that it still causes problems with the compasses on flights taking off from runway 13.

The airport is one of 12 WPA projects that still exist today. In the Marine Air Terminal — otherwise known as Terminal A — there's a 235-foot circular mural painted by James Brooks. Titled Flight, it's the last and largest mural produced under the WPA, and it depicts the history of flight, from Icarus to Leonardo to the Wright brothers. Brooks completed the painting in 1942; a decade later, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey ordered it to be painted over. No official reason was given, but it's rumored to be because someone at the Port Authority thought the painting was soft on Communism. In the late 1970s, an aircraft magazine publisher named Geoffrey Arend spearheaded a campaign to restore the original mural, and it was fully restored and rededicated in 1980.

The design of the New York Municipal Airport was revolutionary for its time. It was built on two levels, one for arriving passengers and one for departing passengers. There were restaurants, Art Deco embellishments, and a rooftop viewing "skywalk." It was the first airport to boast a florist, a beauty salon, a bank, a jeweler, and a brokerage firm on site. It cost a dime to get onto the skywalk, and people turned up in droves to watch the planes land and take off. The rooftop promenade made a fortune for the airport. The airport was dedicated on October 15, and officially opened to commercial air traffic at midnight on December 2. The first plane to land at the world's newest, largest, and most sophisticated airport was a TWA DC-3 from Chicago. Just two weeks after the New York Municipal Airport opened, it was rechristened La Guardia Field after its champion, the mayor.

It's the birthday of Ann Patchett (1963) (books by this author). She was born in Los Angeles, but raised in Nashville, Tennessee, by her single mom. Her first published work was in The Paris Review, not bad for a 21-year-old writer. She published her first novel, The Patron Saint of Liars, in 1992 after several rejections and a bad case of writer's block. She wrote the book over a six-month period, while she was living with her mom and waiting tables at T.G.I. Friday's in Nashville. The waitressing job was demoralizing, but she found an unexpected sense of camaraderie there. "Everybody believed that they were special, that they weren't really a waiter, that they were the one who was getting out. ... I had to come to terms with the fact that I was just like everybody else, a girl with a dream and a plate of hot fajitas. You get out not so much because you're special but because you've got enough steel in your soul to crawl up."

Her first big success was 2001's Bel Canto. In Truth and Beauty: A Friendship (2004), she wrote about her friendship with fellow writer Lucy Grealy, who died of a heroin overdose. Her most recent novel is State of Wonder (2011). It's a modern-day heroine's mythic quest to bring back a formula for everlasting fertility from the jungles of the Amazon.

She said: "I have been accused of being a Pollyanna, but I think there are plenty of people dealing with the darker side of human nature, and if I am going to write about people who are kind and generous and loving and thoughtful, so what? In my life I have met astonishingly good people."

It's the birthday of author and satirist George Saunders (1958) (books by this author). He was born in Amarillo, Texas, and grew up on the South Side of Chicago. He always wanted to be a writer, but he viewed college as a place to learn a trade, so he majored in geophysical engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. His engineering background gave him a taste for functionality and efficiency in prose as well. "I really like lean prose," he said, "stuff that just does what it's supposed to and gets out of there." He's written several short stories and novellas, and his most recent book, Congratulations, by the way: Some Thoughts on Kindness (2014), is a collection of essays.

He teaches creative writing at Syracuse University, where he gives his students advice like, "Any monkey in a story had better be a dead monkey," and "Aunts and uncles are best construed as heliological small-scale weather systems," and "The number of rooms in a fictional house should be inversely proportional to the years during which the couple living in that house enjoyed true happiness."

It's the birthday of novelist Elizabeth Berg (books by this author), born in Saint Paul, Minnesota (1948). She submitted her first poem to a magazine when she was nine years old. The magazine was American Girl, and the poem was rejected. It took her 25 years to work up the courage to write again. She worked as a registered nurse for 10 years; and one day, she entered an essay contest for Parents magazine and won. She wrote pieces for magazines for the next 10 years, and moved on to novels. Her first, Durable Goods, was published in 1993, and she currently writes about one book a year. Her most recent novel is Tapestry of Fortunes (2011). She dreams of retiring to a hobby farm, and longs to have a chicken.

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