Wednesday Mar. 4, 2015

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The Day Nothing Happened

On that day in history, history
took a day off. Current events
were uneventful. Breaking news
never broke. Nobody
of any import was born, or died.
(If you were born that day,
bask in the inverted glory
of your unimportance.)
No milestones, no disasters.
The most significant thing going on
was a golf tournament (the Masters).

It was a Sunday. In Washington,
President Eisenhower
(whose very name induces sleep)
practiced his putt
on the carpet of the Oval Office,
a little white ball crossing
and recrossing the presidential seal
like one of Jupiter’s moons
or a hypnotist’s watch.
On the radio, Perry Como
was putting everyone into a coma.

But the very next day,
in New York City,
Bill Haley & His Comets
recorded “Rock Around the Clock;”
and a few young people
began to regain consciousness …
while history, like Polyphemus
waking from a one-day slumber,
stumbled out of his cave,
blinked his giant eye, and peered around
for something to destroy.

"The Day Nothing Happened" by Jeffrey Harrison from Into Daylight. © Tupelo Press, 2014. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this day in 1791, Vermont became a state. It was the 14th state to join the Union — the first aside from the original 13 colonies.

It's the second-least populated state in the nation, and only five states are smaller in land area. Of all the 50 states, it has the very lowest Gross State Product. But it also has one of the best unemployment rates in the nation. In the past decade, it's been ranked first as the most healthful place to live — more times than any other state.

It has an eccentric political history. It was an independent nation, the Vermont Republic, for 14 years (1777–1791). It had its own money, sovereign government, and a constitution that explicitly forbade slavery — almost a century before the United States did. It also required government taxes to support public schools.

Since 1856, Vermont voted Republican in every single presidential election except one (in 1964, it voted for Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater). But beginning in 1992, Vermont has voted Democrat in every presidential election. It was the only state in America that George W. Bush did not visit during his two terms as president. It became the first state to allow and recognize civil unions between same-sex partners in 2000, and was the first state to legalize same-sex marriage legislatively (Massachusetts was the very first state to legalize same-sex marriage in 2004, but it was through a court ruling).

It vies with New Hampshire for being the least religious state in the union. Only half of Vermonters say they believe in God, compared with about 70 percent of the rest of the nation. People there attend weekly services at a much lower rate than other Americans, and a much smaller percentage say that religion is important to them. There are, however, a disproportionately high number of American converts to Buddhism living in Vermont, and there are several Buddhist retreat centers through out the state.

It produces more maple syrup than any other state in America. About 2.5 percent of Vermont's population speaks French at home.

It's the birthday of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Thomas Stribling (books by this author), born in Clifton, Tennessee (1881), the son of a man who fought in the Union army and a woman whose family fought for the Confederacy.

He knew he wanted to be a writer, and left school to do so. But his respectable parents thought he should have some other profession, and he appeased them by getting a teaching credential and then a law degree. He even started working as a lawyer — or at least it appeared that way. Actually, he was showing up at the law office and using the company's typewriters, paper, and time to sit and work on his fiction. His fellow attorneys counseled him to quit the job, and he did — turning to writing full time at the age of 26.

He supported himself by writing pulp fiction for magazines, detective stories, and science fiction. He traveled around Europe and Latin America, and he began to write novels. He loved Venezuela and wrote three novels set there: Fombombo (1923), Red Sand (1924), and Strange Moon (1929). It was his 12th novel, The Store (1932), a serious satire of the Jim Crow South, for which he won the 1933 Pulitzer Prize. He was a contemporary of Faulkner and Hemingway, and his books sold better than theirs. Between the end of World War I and the beginning of World War II, Stribling was America's best-selling author.

In the 1940s, he quit writing novels but continued writing mysteries for magazines, and he lived until 1965 — age 84. Some of his stories were collected and published posthumously as The Best of Dr. Poggioli (1975) and Dr. Poggioli: Criminologist (2004). His autobiography, Laughing Stock, was published in 1984.

John Adams was inaugurated on this date in 1797. He became the second president of the United States, succeeding George Washington in the first peaceful transfer of power between elected officials in modern times. His rival for the office had been Thomas Jefferson, and because Jefferson had received the second highest number of electoral votes, the Electoral College named him vice president.

The ceremony took place on a sunny day at Philadelphia's Congress Hall. George Washington entered the packed Chamber of the House of Representatives to applause, followed by the vice president, Thomas Jefferson. Adams was last, dressed in a suit of gray broadcloth. He must have looked frumpy next to the tall and elegant Jefferson, who was clad in a long blue frock coat, and the stately Washington, dressed in black velvet.

"A solemn scene it was indeed," Adams later wrote. "Methought I heard [Washington] think, 'Ay! I am fairly out and you are fairly in! See which of us will be the happiest!'"

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was also inaugurated on this date, in 1933. By the time of his inauguration, the country had been mired in the Great Depression for more than three years. Roosevelt won in a landslide over Republican incumbent Herbert Hoover.

Most Americans didn't know the extent to which Roosevelt's paralytic illness had affected him, and he took great pains to keep it that way. In order for him to ascend the steps to the podium to take the oath of office, an elaborate series of wheelchair-accessible ramps was constructed and hidden behind barriers. He walked the last few yards leaning heavily on the arm of his son James, and he made it look easy even though it took great strength.

His inaugural address included the famous phrase "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

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