Wednesday Mar. 11, 2015

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The Blessing

The room darkened, darkened until
our nakedness became a form of gray;
then the rain came bursting,
and we were sheltered, blessed,
upheld in a world of elements
that held us justified.
In all the love I had felt for you before,
in all that love,
there was no love
like that I felt when the rain began:
dim room, enveloping rush,
the slenderness of your throat,
the blessed slenderness.

"The Blessing" by John Updike from Collected Poems. © Knopf, 1993. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It was on this day in 1779 that the Continental Congress established the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. America was in the middle of the Revolutionary War, and the Army itself was only four years old. The resolution mandated that “the engineers [...] shall take rank and enjoy the same rights, honors and privileges with the other troops in the Continental establishment.”

Since 1775, General George Washington had been asking for engineers, pointing out that the Continental Army needed more officers with technical skills. They assembled a group of soldiers and civilians, both American and French; in fact, the French engineers outnumbered the Americans. The Army Corps put up fortifications, cleared terrain before the Army marched through, made maps, and dug strategic trenches. During the Battle of Yorktown, Washington handed over the planning to the engineers. At that point, the Army Corps of Engineers included 50 soldiers called Sappers and Miners (both terms referred to their digging of trenches and fortifications — sapper came from the French word saper, meaning “to dig”) and another 50 soldiers from Delaware, but there were only 13 engineer officers in the combined armies. The Yorktown siege was successful and Washington gave credit to Chief Engineer Louis Duportail.

After the war, members of the Corps of Engineers left the Army just like everyone else. During his presidency, Thomas Jefferson decided to open a military academy. He wrote to his friend the French diplomat and economist Pierre S. du Pont de Nemours to ask what subjects should be taught. Du Pont suggested that engineering should be the main focus, since it encompassed many of the other sciences, and because America was in desperate need of engineers. Du Pont wrote to Jefferson: “No nation is in such need of canals as the United States, and most of their ports have no means of exterior defense.” In 1802, Jefferson established West Point Military Academy for the sole purpose of training engineers, and reestablished the Corps of Engineers as we know it: a permanent division. The academy’s first superintendent was Jonathan Williams, a grand-nephew of Benjamin Franklin. Williams wrote: “Our guiding star is not a little mathematical School, but a great national establishment. We must always have it in view that our Officers are to be men of Science, and as such will by their acquirements be entitled to the notice of learned societies.”

During the War of 1812, the Corps designed a system of fortifications for the New York Harbor and enlisted 38,000 people to help. One of the forts became the base for the Statue of Liberty in 1886. During the War of 1812, the British didn’t manage to capture any works that had been constructed by engineer graduates of West Point. One contemporary historian suggested that if Washington had been served by engineers, the city would not have fallen to the British.

During peacetime, the Corps of Engineers worked on infrastructure and exploring the western frontiers. They built roads, bridges, and lighthouses, and maintained military fortifications. In 1824, Congress passed two important acts just a month apart — the first authorized the Corps to take surveys of roads and waterways of national importance, and the second to improve navigation on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers by removing natural obstacles like sandbars and snags. In the 1830s, the government created the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, which eventually merged with the regular Corps of Engineers. In the 1840s, they began to survey and map the Great Lakes.

During the Civil War and the World Wars, the Corps of Engineers continued building bridges, canals, fortifications, roads, airfields, ports, and pipelines. The Corps helped to plan and build a huge flood control network along the Mississippi River during the Great Depression, and in 1942 the Corps built the Alaska-Canadian Highway. The Corps has continued to work on public works projects like flood control, outdoor recreation, and environmental cleanup, as well as construction projects for the Army.

It’s the birthday of children’s book author Ezra Jack Keats (books by this author), born in Brooklyn (1916), who won the 1963 Caldecott Medal for his book The Snowy Day.

The Snowy Day won widespread acclaim for its beautiful illustrations, lyrical language, and (at the time) bold multiculturalism. It’s about an African-American child named Peter who goes out exploring his New York neighborhood after the first snowfall of the season. Throughout the 1960s, Keats wrote several more award-winning books, which featured his protagonist Peter growing up: Whistle for Willie (1964) Peter’s Chair (1967), A Letter to Amy (1968), and Goggles! (1969). Many of his books have been made into films.

It’s the birthday of the poet who said, “Any time not spent on love is wasted.” That’s Torquato Tasso (books by this author), born in Sorrento, Italy (1544), into a noble family.

In 1581, he published his most famous work, La Gerusalemme liberata, or Jerusalem Delivered, an epic poem about the Crusades. It was hugely popular across Europe, even as Tasso suffered from what is now thought to be schizophrenia — he was suspicious of everyone around him, and lashed out at friends and patrons. He started taking off in secret, traveling incognito around the countryside. He lost all his money and had to move from court to court, trying to get various noblemen to support him. One frustrated benefactor committed him to a madhouse, where he spent seven years. Despite his mental illness, Tasso continued writing love sonnets, plays, and epic and religious poems, and he was proclaimed poet laureate by the pope — but he died just days before he was to be crowned.

It was on this day in 1959 that Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun opened on Broadway. According to The New York Times, it is “the play that changed American theater forever.” The play is named after a line in a poem by Langston Hughes, and it featured a cast made entirely of African-Americans, including a young Sidney Poitier. It ran on Broadway for nearly two years, and has seen countless performances since. The New York Drama Critics Circle named A Raisin in the Sun the best play of 1959.

It’s the birthday of writer Douglas Adams (books by this author), born in Cambridge, England (1952), best known for his five-book “trilogy” The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a series of comic science fiction novels that sold more than 15 million copies, have been translated into more than 30 languages, and inspired a cult-like following.

The idea for the first book came to Adams when he was backpacking through Europe at the age of 19, lying drunk in a field with his tour book called the Hitchhikers Guide to Europe, and lamenting the fact that he couldn’t communicate with Austrians. He said it occurred to him right then that somebody ought to write a hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy.

He worked odd jobs for years, writing things on the side and having them rejected for publication, and was about to give up all hope of being a writer when in 1978 BBC radio accepted an outline of his hitchhiker story for a radio comedy. It’s about an Englishman named Arthur Dent and his alien friend Ford Prefect who hitch a ride from Earth on a passing starship before the planet is destroyed by a band of bureaucratic aliens. He wrote 12 episodes for the radio series, which was a big hit, and soon afterward a publisher asked him to write it up as a book.

Adams was a notoriously unpunctual writer and said: “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

He said, “Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.”

And, “Nothing travels faster than the speed of light with the possible exception of bad news, which obeys its own special laws.”

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