Thursday August 6, 2015

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The morning brought such a lashing rain
I decided I might as well stay inside
And tackle those jobs that had multiplied
Like an old man’s minor aches and pains.
I found a screw for the strikerplate,
Tightened the handle on the bathroom door,
Cleared the drain in the basement floor,
And straightened the hinge for the backyard gate.
Each task had been a nagging distraction,
An itch in the mind, a dangling thread;
Knocking a tiny brass brad on the head,
I felt an insane sense of satisfaction.
Then I heard a great crash in the yard.
The maple had fallen and smashed our car.

“Handyman” by Barton Sutter from Farewell to the Starlight in Whiskey. © BOA Editions, 2004. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It was 50 years ago today, in 1965, that President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. It’s one of the most far-reaching pieces of civil rights legislation ever passed in this country. The 15th Amendment to the Constitution, enacted in 1870, prohibited states from denying male citizens the right to vote “based on race, color or previous condition of servitude.” But black voters were still turned away at the polls, told that they were in the wrong place, or that they had missed the election. Some officials insisted on literacy tests, or made would-be voters recite the Constitution. Presidents Kennedy and Eisenhower had been reluctant to get involved in what was seen as a regional issue. And even though Lyndon Johnson believed that the federal government should intervene, he felt that the timing wasn’t right.

But in March 1965, television viewers watched as state troopers in Selma, Alabama, attacked a group of peaceful protestors who were marching to the capitol. A week later, President Johnson gave a televised speech before Congress, in which he said: “I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy. The command of the Constitution is plain. There is no moral issue. It is wrong to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote [...] it is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.” Martin Luther King Jr. was watching the address on TV that night, and he later said that when he heard Lyndon Johnson say the words “we shall overcome,” he wept. When the president signed the legislation a few months later, Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders were present.

Many states, especially in the South, failed to enforce the Voting Rights Act, but for the first time African-Americans had a legal basis for challenging the prohibitions. And voter registration among African-Americans rose sharply in the years following the passage of the act.

Seventy years ago today, in 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The American B-29 bomber Enola Gay released the bomb, which was nicknamed “Little Boy,” at 8:16 in the morning, local time. Sixty-two thousand buildings were destroyed by the blast, which was equivalent to more than 12,000 tons of TNT. Eighty thousand people were killed on impact, and 35,000 died over the next week of their injuries or radiation poisoning. Sixty thousand more died over the next year. The bomb exploded over a hospital, and 90 percent of the city’s doctors were killed in the blast. It was the beginning of the end of World War II; Germany had already surrendered and Japan would follow after the U.S. dropped a second bomb on Nagasaki three days later.

A year later, The New Yorker devoted an entire issue to the publication of an article by John Hersey. The article, called simply “Hiroshima,” followed the lives of six survivors of the blast. The magazine’s founder and editor Harold Ross wrote to E.B. White: “Hersey has written thirty thousand words on the bombing of Hiroshima [...] one hell of a story, and we are wondering what to do about it [...] [William Shawn, managing editor] wants to wake people up, and says we are the people with a chance to do it, and probably the only people that will do it, if it is done.”

“Hiroshima” begins: “At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6th, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department at the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.”

Today is the birthday of Sir Alexander Fleming, the bacteriologist who discovered the antibacterial properties of penicillin. He was born in Lochfield, Scotland, in 1881. He came into his lab one morning in 1928 to discover he’d left the lid off of a petri dish containing a Staphylococcus culture. The culture had become contaminated by a blue-green mold, and Fleming noted that right around the moldy spots, the bacteria were no longer growing. He isolated the mold and determined it was Penicillium notatum. His first thought was that it would be useful as a surface disinfectant, and he later proved that it was effective against bacterial influenza. He later said, “One sometimes finds what one is not looking for.”

It’s the birthday in Boston, 1909, of children’s author Norma Farber (books by this author), who wrote all kinds of books, including nonsense ballads, instructional alphabets, counting stories, all of which were written in rhyme and meant to be read aloud. She is best known for As I Was Crossing the Boston Common, which won the 1976 National Book Award; a turtle narrates the book, and tells about the animals he meets one day as he crosses the Boston Common, creatures that parade by him in alphabetical order.

It’s the birthday of American historian Richard Hofstadter (books by this author), born in Buffalo, New York (1916). He wrote 13 books, two of which won the Pulitzer Prize for history: The Age of Reform (1955) and Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1964).

It’s the birthday of the Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (books by this author), born in Lincolnshire, England, in 1809. He’s one of the most popular poets in the English language, and was one of the last poets to sell as many books as a novelist. At his peak, he was one of the most famous people in England — possibly behind only Queen Victoria and the prime minister. His house was a tourist attraction, and his fans lined up outside at all hours of the day and night. He was made a lord in 1884, when he was 75, and he was the only member of the House of Lords to be there solely on the basis of literary merit.

Tennyson gave us some of the most familiar lines in English poetry, including “’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” and “Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die.”

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