I like to watch an old man cutting a sandwich in half,
maybe an ordinary cold roast beef on whole wheat bread,
no pickles or onion, keeping his shaky hands steady
by placing his forearms firm on the edge of the table
and using both hands, the left to hold the sandwich in place,
and the right to cut it surely, corner to corner,
observing his progress through glasses that moments before
he wiped with his napkin, and then to see him lift half
onto the extra plate that he had asked the server to bring,
and then to wait, offering the plate to his wife
while she slowly unrolls her napkin and places her spoon,
her knife and her fork in their proper places,
then smoothes the starched white napkin over her knees
and meets his eyes and holds out both old hands to him.
“Splitting an Order” by Ted Kooser from Splitting an Order. © Copper Canyon Press, 2014. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
Permanent construction began on the Berlin Wall on this date in 1961. After World War II, Germany had been divided up by British, French, Soviet, and American occupying forces. The city of Berlin lay completely within Soviet territory, but it was also divided. Soviet forces controlled the eastern part of the city and the country, and they were increasingly concerned about locking it down against the democratic West. The border was porous after the war, and millions of East Germans emigrated west in search of greater opportunities. By 1961, they were leaving at a rate of a thousand per day.
So in the early hours of August 13, 1961, East German soldiers quietly began laying down barbed wire: a hundred miles of it just inside the border of East Berlin. People woke up and discovered that they had been separated from families and jobs, with no advance warning. And two days later, on this date, the government of East Germany began to replace the wire with a six-foot block wall. The mayor of West Berlin dubbed it the “Wall of Shame”; East German authorities, on the other hand, called it an “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart,” and they placed sentry towers and minefields all along the wall. People still tried to escape, even after the wall was raised to ten feet. About half of them made it. West Germany wanted the United States to do something, but President Kennedy was reluctant to act. He told his staff, “It’s not a very nice solution, but a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.”
Finally, in 1989, with the end of the Cold War, the gates between East and West Berlin were opened again. Over the next year, souvenir hunters known as Mauerspechte, or “Wallpeckers,” began chipping away at the wall, knocking off blocks with sledgehammers and climbing back and forth over it. The wall was formally dismantled, and Germany reunified, in 1990.
It’s the birthday of essayist Thomas de Quincey (books by this author), born in Manchester, England (1785). As a teenager, he showed a real aptitude for Greek; he spoke it fluently and wrote verses in that language. He moved to the Lake District in 1809 to be closer to William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, his literary idols. But he eventually fell out with both of them, and, in 1813, he became hooked on opium. Chronically in debt, he had to take a job writing articles for Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine to make ends meet. He wrote more than 200 articles, but he’s best remembered for Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822). It’s a combination of autobiography, social commentary, and vivid descriptions of the effects of the drug. It was an instant sensation and influenced later writers like Edgar Allan Poe and William Burroughs.
It’s the birthday of Denise Chávez (books by this author), born in Las Cruces, New Mexico (1948), a town just 40 miles from the Mexican border. Her father was a lawyer, and he left the family when Chávez was a child, so her mother, a teacher, raised her with the help of a strong community of women from both sides of the border.
After earning two master’s degrees, Chávez went to work on her first novel, the draft of which was 1,200 pages. She and her editor whittled it down to 456 pages, and the resulting book, Face of an Angel, was published in 1994 to high critical acclaim. The novel includes excerpts from the diary of the protagonist, who is a career waitress, as well as a waitress etiquette and philosophy manual. Chávez herself had spent more than 30 years waiting tables.
She grew up in a family that loved to tell stories, and she acknowledges her roots in the oral storytelling tradition, calling herself a “performance writer.” In her writing, she also incorporates her bilingual background, and she does not italicize Spanish words in her works, which has caused conflicts with editors who think that the words should be differentiated in the type or set apart somehow.
Chávez has written several plays, three novels — Face of an Angel (1994), Loving Pedro Infante (2001), and The King and Queen of Comezón (2014) — and a children’s book, The Woman Who Knew the Language of Animals (1992). She also wrote a memoir with recipes, A Taco Testimony: Meditations on Family, Food, and Culture (2006). She is the founder and director of the annual Border Book Festival in Las Cruces.
On this date in 80 years ago in 1935, humorist Will Rogers and pilot Wiley Post, died in a plane crash flying from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Point Barrow. The two men were world famous: Post for being the first pilot to fly solo around the world, and Rogers for his rope tricks and his pithy newspaper column. They were also fellow Oklahomans and friends. So it was natural that Rogers would hire Post to fly him across Alaska as he went in search of new material for his column. While Post flew the plane, Rogers would work away on a typewriter.
Post cobbled together the plane himself, from parts of two different Lockheed aircrafts. Lockheed knew the parts were incompatible and refused to assemble it, knowing it was unsafe. Post had also ordered pontoons for the Alaska trip, in case he needed to make a water landing, but they didn’t arrive in time, so he attached two ill-fitting floats instead. The floats made the plane hard to control, and its nose tended to dip down. They hit some bad weather that made it hard to get their bearings. They landed in a lagoon to ask directions, and found they weren’t too far from their destination. They took off again, but the engine stalled when they were just 50 feet up. The plane’s nose dropped and the craft hit the lagoon, and Post and Rogers died instantly.