Each day was a time clock that scarcely moved,
a slow fist punching us in, punching us out,
electric heat smoldering in the purple air,
but each night was a towering white fly ball
to center field — “a can of corn” — coming down
through stars glittering above the diamond.
Each day was a pair of heavy canvas gloves
hoisting garbage cans into an omnivorous mouth
that crept through thoroughfares and alleys,
but each night was the feeling of a bat
coming alive in your hands, it was lining
the first good pitch for a sharp single.
That summer I learned to steal second base
by getting the jump on right-handed pitchers
and then sliding head-first into the bag.
I learned to drive my father’s stick shift
and to park with my girlfriend at the beach,
our headlights beaming and running low.
I was a 16-year-old in the suburbs
and each day was another lesson in working,
a class in becoming invisible to others,
but each night was a Walt Whitman of holidays,
the clarity of a whistle at 5 P.M.,
the freedom of walking out into the open air.
“American Summer” by Edward Hirsch from On Love. © Alfred A. Knopf, 1998. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye was published on this date in 1951 (books by this author). It is Salinger’s only novel. It’s one of the most banned books in American history. It’s also one of the most frequently taught in high schools, even though Salinger didn’t intend the book for teenage readers. Holden Caulfield, the book’s protagonist, is a prep school boy from New York City, and he addresses the reader directly. The novel begins, “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
Salinger had thought about Holden Caulfield for years. He carried six Caulfield stories with him when he went off to fight in World War II. The stories were with Salinger on the beach at Normandy and in Nazi concentration camps. They were with him in the hours he spent with Ernest Hemingway in Paris. By the time Salinger began to assemble the novel The Catcher in the Rye, he had nine stories about Holden and his family.
When he finished the manuscript, Salinger sent it to publisher Robert Giroux at Harcourt, Brace. Giroux was impressed with the book, and was pleased to be its editor, but he never thought it would be a best-seller. Giroux sent the book to his boss, Eugene Reynal. Reynal didn’t really get it, and sent it to a textbook editor for his opinion, since it was about a prep-school boy. The textbook editor didn’t like it, so Harcourt, Brace would not publish it. Rival house Little, Brown picked it up right away, and Robert Giroux quit his job and went to work for Farrar, Strauss instead. Reviewers called the book “brilliant,” “funny,” and “meaningful.” Salinger couldn’t cope with the amount of publicity and celebrity the book gave him. He moved to a hilltop home in New Hampshire and lived the rest of his life in seclusion. Many directors approached Salinger over the years, hoping to obtain the movie rights, and Salinger turned them all down.
On this day in 1945, at 5:29:45 a.m., the first atom bomb was successfully detonated at White Sands Proving Ground in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The assembled scientists wore welder’s goggles and shared suntan lotion. Enrico Fermi took bets on whether the atmosphere would ignite and destroy just the state of New Mexico, or the entire planet. The explosion lit up the sky. The desert sand, largely made of silica, melted and turned to a light green, radioactive glass. Ken Bainbridge, the Harvard physicist in charge of the whole enterprise, known as the Manhattan Project, turned to J. Robert Oppenheimer and said, “We are all sons of bitches now.” On August 6th and August 9th, the United States bombed the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, the only time nuclear weapons have been used in the history of warfare. Bainbridge dedicated his life to the eradication of nuclear weaponry.
Today is the birthday of St. Clare of Assisi, born 1194. As the eldest daughter of a wealthy family, she was expected by her parents to marry well, and they began trying to fix her up with eligible bachelors when she was only 12. She managed to convince them to wait until she was 18, but by that time she preferred to go and listen to the young and radical Francis of Assisi preaching the gospel. One Palm Sunday, she ran away in the middle of the night to give her vows to Francis. He cut her hair, dressed her in black, and brought her to a group of Benedictine nuns. Later, he moved her to the Church of San Damiano, where she embraced a life of extreme poverty, after the example set by Jesus. Clare’s sister Agnes eventually ran away to join her, and so did other women, and the order became known as the “Poor Ladies.” They spent their time in prayer and manual labor, and refused to own any property.
Clare defended her lifestyle of poverty and sacrifice by saying: “There are some who do not pray nor make sacrifices; there are many who live solely for the idolatry of their senses. There should be compensation. There should be someone who prays and makes sacrifices for those who do not do so. If this spiritual balance is not established, earth would be destroyed by the evil one.”