It was back when we used to listen to stories,
our minds developing
pictures as we were taken into the elsewhere
of our experience or to the forbidden
or under the sea.
Television was wrestling, Milton Berle,
Believe It Or Not. We knelt before it
in front of something sent by parachute,
but when grandfather said “I’ll tell you a story,”
we stopped with pleasure,
sat crosslegged next to the fireplace, waited.
He’d sip gin and hold us, his voice
the extra truth
beyond what we believed without question.
When grandfather died and changed
what an evening meant,
it was 1954. After supper we went
to the television, innocents in a magic land
getting more innocent,
a thousand years away from Oswald and the shock,
the end of our enormous childhood.
We sat still
for anything, laughed when anyone slipped
or lisped or got hit with a pie. We said
to our friends
“What the hey?” and punched them in the arms.
The television had arrived, and was coming.
Throughout the country
all the grandfathers were dying,
giving their reluctant permission, like Indians.
"Stories" by Stephen Dunn from Local Time. © Quill Press, 1986. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
It was on this day in 1942 that the first around-the-world commercial flight landed at La Guardia’s seaplane base. The Boeing 314 plane was named the Pacific Clipper, although it had originally been called the California Clipper.
Pan American Airways — commonly known as Pan Am — had started its trans-Pacific flight service in 1936. Passengers traveled on huge, luxurious airplanes, and these commercial flights became a favorite mode of transportation for wealthy Americans bound for Hawaii and other destinations in the South Seas. The Boeing 314s could carry 74 passengers (the industry standard was 14), and a large load of mail — Pan Am made half its money from carrying mail. The airplanes contained several separate passenger compartments with couches, thick walls so sound did not travel, a lounge, and even a bridal suite. For meals, passengers sat at tables covered in fine linens, and fancy food was served on china plates. Most flights traveled only during the day and touched down at luxurious hotels for the night, but if an overnight flight was necessary, the couches converted into beds. The Clippers were the pinnacle of luxury; Franklin Roosevelt celebrated his 61st birthday on one. The writer Clare Boothe Luce said: “Someday a Clipper Flight will be remembered as the most romantic voyage in history.”
Today is the birthday of E.L. Doctorow (books by this author), born in New York City (1931). He’s the author of The Book of Daniel (1971), which won the National Book Award; and Ragtime (1975). His most recent book is Andrew’s Brain, which was published last January (2014). In 1986, Doctorow sat down with George Plimpton, and the two of them discussed writing for The Paris Review. It’s the interview that gave rise to one of Doctorow’s most famous quotes: “[Writing is] like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” He also said: “I don’t want a style. [...] I think that the minute a writer knows what his style is, he’s finished. Because then you see your own limits, and you hear your own voice in your head. At that point you might as well close up shop.”
On this date in 2001, George W. Bush was certified the winner of the 2000 presidential election. The race between the Republican Bush and his Democrat rival, Vice President Al Gore, was one of the closest presidential elections in history. It all came down to a collection of disputed Florida ballots. The nation watched as committees counted and recounted the punch-card ballots and determined whether the disputed hanging, dimpled, and pregnant chads — the little bits of card stock that are popped out by punching the ballot — were punched out sufficiently to convey the voter’s intent. Al Gore won the popular vote across the whole country, but when the Supreme Court voted five to four to stop Florida’s manual recount, the state’s electoral votes were awarded to Bush. He needed 270 electoral votes to clinch the election, and Florida’s share of the Electoral College pushed him over the minimum, to 271. Bush became the third president in the nation’s history to lose the popular vote but win the electoral vote. He took the oath of office two weeks later, on January 20.
It’s the birthday of novelist Elizabeth Strout (books by this author), born in Portland, Maine (1956), to a family that had lived in that state for eight generations. Her first novel, Amy and Isabelle (1998), was made into a TV movie by Oprah Winfrey. Her collection of linked short stories, Olive Kitteridge (2008), won the Pulitzer Prize, as well as Italy’s Premio Bancarella award. She’s the first American author to win that prize since Ernest Hemingway. In between those two books, she wrote a best-seller, Abide with Me (2006).
Strout said: “I write pieces, and move them around. And the fun of it is watching the truthful parts slide together. What is false won’t fit.”