Friday Mar. 27, 2015

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The Battle

Helmet and rifle, pack and overcoat
Marched through a forest. Somewhere up ahead
Guns thudded. Like the circle of a throat
The night on every side was turning red.

They halted and they dug. They sank like moles
Into the clammy earth between the trees.
And soon the sentries, standing in their holes,
Felt the first snow. Their feet began to freeze.

At dawn the first shell landed with a crack.
Then shells and bullets swept the icy woods.
This lasted many days. The snow was black.
The corpses stiffened in their scarlet hoods.

Most clearly of that battle I remember
The tiredness in eyes, how hands looked thin
Around a cigarette, and the bright ember
Would pulse with all the life there was within.

“The Battle” by Louis Simpson, from Collected Poems. © Paragon House, 1988. Reprinted with permission of the author.   (buy now)

The first segment of the Washington Metro opened on this date in 1976. There had been talk of establishing a subway in the rapidly expanding capital since the end of World War II, but it took 20 years before any progress was made. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority was created in February 1967, and construction began almost three years later. Before tackling construction hurdles, bureaucratic hurdles had to be cleared: Matching legislation had to be approved on Capitol Hill and in Annapolis and Richmond, the capitals of the two neighboring states (Maryland and Virginia) through which the Metro would run. The Metro’s first general manager was Major General Jackson Graham, formerly of the Army Corps of Engineers. Graham always wore a brown suit, and he carried over his love of earth tones to the decor of many of the Metro stations to come. The project managers then had to negotiate with environmental groups, disability advocates, and freeway lobbyists; the original budget of $2.5 billion had grown to $6 billion even before the first paying customer stepped on board. Graham pushed construction to start as soon as possible, saying, “If we get a big enough hole in the ground, they can’t stop us.”

The first segment opened on a warm, cloudy Saturday, and some 50,000 people stood in line for hours to take a free ride on the Red Line, which ran from Rhode Island Avenue to the Farragut North underground station. The first segment ran for about four and a half miles, and the trip lasted less than 10 minutes. So many people tried to cram into the cars that the doors wouldn’t shut, and the trains stalled.

Today, there are 91 Metro stations in the Washington, D.C., area, covering 118 miles and serving a population of 5 million passengers on six different lines. The Silver Line was the last line, and it officially opened last July.

It’s the birthday of the woman who wrote “Happy Birthday to You,” Patty Smith Hill, born in Anchorage, Kentucky (1868). Most of her life was spent as a kindergarten teacher. She began teaching in Louisville, Kentucky, and it was there, in 1893, that Hill first wrote the lyrics to the song. But it was originally meant as a welcome to start the school day and was first called “Good Morning to All.” Hill’s sister Mildred, an accomplished musician, provided the melody. Hill was 25 when she wrote the lyrics to the famous song.

It became popularized with the invention of radio and sound films. The song appeared in the Broadway musical “The Band Wagon” (1931), and was used for Western Union’s first singing telegram in 1933. A third sister, Jessica Hill, noticed the similarities between “Happy Birthday to You” and the song her sisters wrote, and she was able to prove it in a court of law. The song was copyrighted in 1935 and remains under copyright to this day. According to Forbes magazine, the song produces about $2 million in licensing revenue each year. “Happy Birthday to You” is still one of the most popular songs in the English language, along with “Auld Lang Syne” and “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.”

It’s the birthday of novelist and poet Julia Alvarez (books by this author), born in New York City (1950). She grew up in the Dominican Republic and returned to New York when she was 10 years old. “All my childhood I had dressed like an American, eaten American foods, and befriended American children. I had gone to an American school and spent most of the day speaking and reading English. At night, my prayers were full of blond hair and blue eyes and snow. [...] All my childhood I had longed for this moment of arrival. And here I was, an American girl, coming home at last.” Instead of finding a fantasy land, she said, she “lost almost everything: a homeland, a language, family connections, a way of understanding, and a warmth.”

She often writes about the experience of between caught between two cultures. Her first book was a collection of poetry, called Homecoming (1984), and her first novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (1991), was based on the experiences Alvarez and her sisters had upon coming to New York. She also wrote a nonfiction book, Once Upon a Quinceañera (2007), about the tradition of throwing elaborate 15th birthday parties for young Latinas. “Imagine,” she said, “a whole community spends three months, six, a year, preparing and focusing on its young girls. Quite an investment of time and energy, and it makes the girls feel supported, loved, encouraged to be the new up and coming leaders in the community. Positive things happen at a time in life when young girls are especially vulnerable.” Her latest book is A Wedding in Haiti (2012).

It’s the birthday of director Quentin Tarantino, born in Knoxville, Tennessee (1963), and raised in Los Angeles, near the airport. He dropped out of high school after ninth grade, took some acting classes, worked as an usher at an adult theater, and rewrote screenplays from memory. He skipped film school in favor of a job at a big video store in Southern California, where he and his co-workers — all aspiring filmmakers — watched and analyzed movies all day. He got a few small acting jobs, and sold a couple of screenplays, but, as the cliché goes, he really wanted to direct. He got his break when Harvey Keitel read one of his scripts; Keitel was impressed, so he helped Tarantino get the movie produced. That was Reservoir Dogs (1992). Two years later came his big hit, Pulp Fiction (1994).

Tarantino won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Django Unchained (2012), a spaghetti western set in the Deep South, about a slave turned bounty hunter’s quest to find his estranged wife.

On this day in 1912, President Taft’s wife and the wife of the ambassador from Japan planted the first of Washington, D.C.’s cherry trees. The cuttings were scions from the most famous trees in Tokyo, the ones that grow along the banks of the Arakawa River. Workers took over, and thousands of cherry trees, all gifts from the Japanese government, were planted around the Tidal Basin. During the Second World War, Tokyo lost scores of cherry trees in the allied bombing raids; after the surrender, horticulturalists took cuttings from the trees in Washington and sent them back to Tokyo. Years later, some of the Washington trees died, and Tokyo sent cuttings back across the Pacific.

It’s the birthday of poet Louis Simpson (books by this author), born in Kingston, Jamaica (1923). He moved to New York City as a teenager. He loved writing, and studied at Columbia University, but while he was still a student he was drafted into the Army during World War II. He served as a combat infantryman in some of the most intense fighting of the war — at Normandy, Arnhem, and the Battle of the Bulge. When he returned home, he had two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star, and he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. He spent six months in a psychiatric hospital. He said: “I did not intend to be a poet. I wanted to tell stories. I wanted to use words that would bring other people under a spell and win their admiration.” But he could no longer hold an entire novel, or even stories, in his head — poetry was the only format that felt possible.

He went back to Columbia, and a year after he graduated he published his first book of poems, The Arrivistes (1949). He worked as an editor and a professor, and published 18 more books of poems, including Adventures of the Letter I (1971), People Live Here (1983), The Owner of the House (2003), and Voices in the Distance (2010), and two autobiographies, North of Jamaica (1972) and The King My Father’s Wreck (1995). He also published poetry criticism; he said, “Descriptions of poetry written by men who are not poets are usually ridiculous, for they describe rational thought processes.”

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