Monday June 1, 2015

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Grandfather’s Cars

Every two years he traded them in (“As soon
as the ashtrays get full,” he said with good humor);
always a sedate four-door sedan, always a Buick,
always dark as the inside of a tomb.

Then one spring Grandfather took off to trade,
returned, parked proudly in the driveway.
“Shave-and-a-haircut, two bits!” blared the horn.
Grandmother emerged from the kitchen into day-

light, couldn’t believe her eyes. Grandfather sat
behind the wheel of a tomato-red Lincoln
convertible, the top down. “Shave-and-a-haircut,
two bits!” “Roscoe, whatever are you thinking?”

she cried. Back into the kitchen she flew.
No matter how many times he leaned on that horn,
she wouldn’t return. So he went inside,
found her decapitating strawberries with scorn.

“Katie, what’s wrong with that automobile?
All my life I’ve wanted something sporty.”
He stood there wearing his Montgomery Ward
brown suit and saddle shoes. His face was warty.

She wiped her hands along her apron,
said words that cut like a band saw:
“What ails you? They’ll think you’ve turned fool!
All our friends are dying like flies-all!

You can’t drive that thing in a funeral procession.”
He knew she was right. He gave her one baleful
look, left, and returned in possession
of a four-door Dodge, black, practical as nails.

Grandfather hated that car until the day he died.

“Grandfather’s Cars” by Robert Phillips from Spinach Days © The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this day in 1974, Henry Jay Heimlich published his “Heimlich maneuver” in the Journal of Emergency Medicine. The article was called “Pop Goes the Café Coronary.” Less than three weeks later, the maneuver was used successfully in a restaurant in Bellevue, Washington. As of 2006, the American Red Cross recommends the “five and five” approach: five sharp blows to the back, followed by five abdominal thrusts if the back blows are not effective.

It’s the birthday of poet John Masefield (books by this author), born in Ledbury, England (1878). His writing often took the sea as its subject; his first collection was titled Salt-Water Ballads (1902), and included one of his most beloved poems, “Sea-Fever,” which begins: “I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,/ And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.”

Masefield was chosen as the U.K.’s poet laureate in 1930 and kept the post for 37 years.

It’s the birthday of Charles Kay Ogden (books by this author), born in Fleetwood, Lancashire, England, in 1889. An editor, translator, journalist, and linguist, Ogden occasionally used the pen name “Adelyne (for “add a line”) More” in his articles. He wrote a monograph in 1923 called “The Meaning of Meaning,” in which he explores the psychological and philosophical underpinnings of language. From 1925 until his death in 1957, he worked on what he called BASIC English — British, American, Scientific, International, Commercial — a simplified, English-based language of 850 core words designed for international uses.

It’s the birthday of writer and neuroscientist Colleen McCullough (books by this author), born in Wellington, Australia (1937). She studied neurophysiology, and worked in Sydney and London before landing a job as a research associate at Yale. She spent 10 happy years there; she was good at her job, and it gave her time to pursue her hobbies. But when she discovered that her male colleagues were making twice as much money as their female counterparts, she decided that she needed a backup plan. She said, “I loved being a neurophysiologist, but I didn’t want to be a 70-year-old spinster in a cold-water, walk-up flat with one 60-watt light bulb, which is what I could see as my future.”

Although she had never tried to publish anything, she decided to try her hand at professional writing. She began writing in the evenings after work, and she based her first novel on a situation she had encountered at Yale, working with a middle-aged woman and her husband, who was a much younger man with developmental disabilities. Her novel Tim (1974) was a modest success.

A few years earlier, one of her colleagues at Yale, the classics professor Erich Segal, had published the wildly popular novel Love Story (1970). Before writing her second novel, McCullough interviewed Yale students about what they loved about Love Story. She distilled those elements, used an Australian setting, and wrote a long romantic novel about an illicit love affair between a beautiful young woman and a Catholic priest, following three generations on a sheep farm in the Australian outback. That novel, The Thorn Birds (1977), became an international sensation, selling more than 30 million copies. The American paperback rights sold for a record $1.9 million. She quit her job and moved back to Australia, to Norfolk Island, where she lived for the rest of her life. She wrote more than 20 books, including An Indecent Obsession (1981), Morgan’s Run (2000), and Bittersweet (2013). She died earlier this year.

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