Wednesday Sep. 16, 2015

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Look It Over

I leave behind even
my walking stick. My knife
is in my pocket, but that
I have forgot. I bring
no car, no cell phone,
no computer, no camera,
no CD player, no fax, no
TV, not even a book. I go
into the woods. I sit on
a log provided at no cost.
It is the earth I’ve come to,
the earth itself, sadly
abused by the stupidity
only humans are capable of
but, as ever, itself. Free.
A bargain! Get it while it lasts.

"Look It Over” by Wendell Berry from New Collected Poems. © Counterpoint Press, 2012. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of blues singer and guitarist B.B. King, born in Itta Bena, Mississippi (1925). He was born into a black sharecropping family on a cotton plantation in the Mississippi Delta. He lived with his mother, who was very religious and made sure that he sang in the church choir. When his mother died, he had to survive by doing farm work. His uncle taught him guitar, and he bought an eight-dollar guitar for himself to learn on. He found he could make more money playing on street corners than he did doing farm work. He started by singing gospel, and everybody appreciated it but nobody gave him any money. So he tried singing secular, blues music, and used lyrics he knew from gospel songs, but sang “my baby” instead of “my Lord.” And from then on, passersby paid him.

He joined the Army during World War II and then moved to Memphis where he worked as a deejay using the on-air name “Beale Street Blues-Boy,” later shortened to B.B. He wrote in his autobiography: “Imagine my situation: Before Memphis, I never even owned a record player. Now I was sitting in a room with a thousand records and the ability to play them whenever I wanted. I was the kid in the candy store, able to eat it all. I gorged myself.” He performed with his red guitar, called Lucille, toured the country for two decades playing in black clubs and dance halls, and performed often in jails. In the song “Riding with the King,” he sang: “I stepped out of Mississippi when I was 10 years old / With a suit cut sharp as a razor and a heart made of gold / I had a guitar hanging just about waist high / And I’m gonna play this thing until the day I die.” He said, “Some people smoke and drink, but just holding the guitar and strumming a few notes seems to do it for me.”

King died this past May; he was 89.

Today is the birthday of H.A. Rey (books by this author), born Hans Augusto Reyersbach in Hamburg, Germany (1898). He grew up near the Hagenbeck Zoo, and spent many happy hours watching and drawing the animals, and learning to imitate their sounds. When he was in his 20s, he moved to Rio de Janeiro, changed his last name to “Rey” because it was easier for Brazilians to pronounce, and went to work selling bathtubs.

It was in Rio that he was reunited with Margret Waldstein, a young artist he’d met back in Hamburg, when Margret was still a girl. She convinced him to leave the bathtub trade and together they opened an advertising agency. They were married in Brazil in 1935. They went to Europe on their honeymoon and decided to move back there, but couldn’t return to Germany because they were both Jews, and by this time the Nazis were in power. The Reys settled in Paris instead, and began collaborating on children’s books, with Margret writing the copy and Hans providing the illustrations.

They were living in Paris when the Second World War broke out. “It seems ridiculous to be thinking about children’s books,” Rey wrote to a friend. “[But] life goes on, the editors edit, the artists draw, even during wartime.” One of their collaborations, Raffy and the Nine Monkeys (1939), is about a lonely giraffe who opens her home to a family of monkeys. The youngest monkey was named Fifi, and he was always getting into scrapes; the Reys liked him so much, they decided to write a book that was just about him.

The Reys were at work on their Fifi book when they found out that the Nazis were going to invade Paris. Rey hastily built two bicycles out of spare parts; he and Margret gathered up a very few belongings — including their manuscript — and left the city just two days before the Nazis invaded, funded by the advance they had received for The Adventures of Fifi. They cycled 75 miles in two days, staying in farmhouses and barns. At one point, they were stopped by an official, who thought they might be German spies. He searched their bag, found the monkey manuscript, and released them. The Reys crossed Spain and Portugal, eventually making their way to Lisbon; from there, they sailed to Brazil, where they made arrangements to move to the United States.

They finally arrived in New York City four months after they’d left Paris, and moved to Greenwich Village. Within a week, they had found a publisher for their monkey book, but the publisher thought “Fifi” was a strange name for a boy monkey, so they changed his name. Curious George was published in 1941, and the Reys wrote and illustrated six more stories about him — stories like Curious George Rides a Bike (1952) and Curious George Goes to the Hospital (1966). Each book begins the same way: “George was a good little monkey, but he was always very curious.”

On this date in 1620, the Mayflower set sail for America. The 90-foot ship was chartered by a group of merchants known as “the London Adventurers,” and it carried 102 settlers — about half of them religious separatists — to the New World. There were supposed to have been two ships to carry the settlers, but the Mayflower’s sister ship, the Speedwell, proved to be unseaworthy, and eventually the Mayflower had to carry on without her, taking on some of her passengers. They were bound for a tract of land set aside for them in the colony of Virginia, which at that time was much larger than our current state; the Mayflower’s tract was along the Hudson River in what is now New York. Because their departure was delayed, they hit bad weather and were blown off course, making landfall on Cape Cod instead. Only about half of the original passengers survived the first winter, but none of them took the opportunity to return to England when the Mayflower departed in the spring.

Today is the birthday of Henry V, the king of England immortalized by Shakespeare, born on this day in 1387. He was the first king of England to grow up speaking and writing fluently in English. Previous kings had spoken either French or Saxon.

It’s the birthday of James J. Hill, one of America’s most successful railroad tycoons, born in southern Ontario (1838). By 1870, Hill had established his own railroad company and laid track to the Red River Valley in western Minnesota and the Dakotas. He eventually began construction of a line from the Twin Cities to Seattle. The land he purchased was full of valuable resources, and thousands of settlers followed his railroad across the Great Plains. By 1893, the track was finished, and his Great Northern Company ran the only private transcontinental railroad.

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