Saturday Apr. 9, 2016

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Ripe Cherries

I read that the men,
on their way to Gettysburg,
stopped along the road
to pick and eat ripe cherries.

That the fruit should not
go to waste.

That they should take
such pleasure before battle.

That the oldest among them
should shake the trees
and the youngest gather
the fallen fruit.
That they should aim rifles
with the taste of cherries
against their teeth.

“Ripe Cherries” by Athena Kildegaard from Bodies of Light. © Red Dragonfly Press, 2011. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this day in 1859, a 23-year-old pilot named Samuel Clemens received his steamboat license (books by this author). Growing up in the river town of Hannibal, Missouri, Clemens and his friends watched the steamboats land three times a day. He said: “When I was a boy, there was but one permanent ambition among my comrades in our village on the west bank of the Mississippi River. That was, to be a steamboatman. We had transient ambitions of other sorts, but they were only transient. When a circus came and went, it left us all burning to become clowns; the first negro minstrel show that came to our section left us all suffering to try that kind of life; now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates. These ambitions faded out, each in its turn; but the ambition to be a steamboatman always remained.”

When Clemens turned 21 (1857), he paid a river pilot named Horace Bixby $500 to take him on as an apprentice. He spent two years as a “cub” pilot, traveling up and down the Mississippi River, before getting his steamboat license.

Unfortunately, the Civil War cut short his career as a pilot. In April 1861, all traffic on the river was halted, and Clemens joined a volunteer militia group called the Marion Rangers. Later, in between mining for gold in the new territory of Nevada, he took up writing humorous stories for the local papers, christening himself “Mark Twain,” which is a boatman’s term noting that the river is only two fathoms deep, the minimum depth for safe navigation.

As Mark Twain, Clemens wrote the classic novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Huckleberry Finn (1885).

He recounted his adventures as a pilot of the great river in Life on the Mississippi (1883). He wrote: “The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book — a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as dearly as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day.”

On this day in 1865, Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant, effectively ending the Civil War.

They met at a private residence in Appomattox Court House, Virginia. General Grant was reported to have begun the conversation by saying: “I met you once before, General Lee, while we were serving in Mexico [...] I have always remembered your appearance, and I think I should have recognized you anywhere.”

To which Lee is said to have replied, “Yes. I know I met you on that occasion, and I have often thought of it and tried to recollect how you looked, but I have never been able to recall a single feature.”

They talked over terms for an end to the war. Lee asked Grant to commit the terms to paper, which Grant handwrote on the spot. Lee accepted them on the spot. They shook hands. Before Lee rode off to inform his men, the two generals raised their hats to each other in salute.

The site is now a National Historic Park.

On this day in 1682, French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, discovered the mouth of the Mississippi River and claimed the land for France, naming the new territory La Louisiane.

La Salle was born to well-off parents in Rouen, France, but renounced his family’s wealth when he took a vow of poverty to join the Jesuit religious order (1660). He was nearly destitute when he arrived in New France (Canada) in 1666, where he soon requested to be released from the Jesuit society because of his “moral weaknesses.” He began cobbling together a living as an explorer and fur trader, traveling the Great Lakes region and the upper Mississippi River.

On a 1681 expedition, La Salle and about 40 men, including his friend Henri de Tonty, an Italian soldier of fortune who’d lost a hand in a grenade explosion, made their way south, navigating the icy waters of the Chicagou (Chicago), Renard (Fox) and Illinois rivers on their way to the Mississippi River. They reached the great river on February 6, 1682, then headed down in canoes, stopping to build Fort Prud’homme at what is now Memphis, Tennessee.

Finally, they arrived at the point where the Mississippi River empties into the Gulf of Mexico, near present-day Venice, Louisiana, an area that has earned the nickname “the end of the world.”

Dressed ceremoniously in a gold-laced red cloak, La Salle planted a cross at the site, claiming the entire Mississippi River Basin for France and his king, Louis XIV. He named the area La Lousiane for the king, which set the stage for 80 years of French rule in the new colony.

The king, however, would not learn of La Salle’s discovery for a full year, and when he did, he declared the land “utterly useless.” The land was, in fact, the most fertile half of the North American continent.

Today is the birthday of Gregory Goodwin Pincus, born in Woodbine, New Jersey (1903). “As long as I can remember, I knew I was going to be a scientist,” he once said. His father and two uncles were agricultural scientists, and Pincus earned money doing farm work while he was at school. He studied genetics at Cornell, and then went on to graduate school at Harvard, where he taught zoology classes and worked on his doctorate. As his career took off, he began to specialize in mammalian reproduction and the role that hormones play in a number of areas, including reproduction, mental disorders, heart disease, and stress.

In 1936, Pincus shocked people when he revealed that his experiments had resulted in “fatherless” or “test-tube” rabbits from artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization. He specified that he was not going to extend this experimentation to human subjects, but a printed interview mistakenly left off the word “not.” People called him “Dr. Frankenstein” and accused him of trying to create soulless human life in a laboratory. Even though he published a well-respected book called The Eggs of Mammals (1936), his reputation was ruined by his work with test-tube rabbits. His Harvard appointment was not renewed. He took a job as a visiting professor in Worcester, Massachusetts, and co-founded the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology in 1944. He began doing applied research on steroids, but the foundation barely made ends meet; he saved money by working a second job as the lab’s janitor.

Pincus met Margaret Sanger, the founder of The American Birth Control League, (which later became Planned Parenthood), at a dinner party in about 1950. Sanger had been searching for years for a discreet and affordable birth control method for women, and Pincus had already discovered that hormone injections could stop ovulation in animals. She reportedly asked him, “Do you think it would be possible to develop an efficient contraceptive that would be easy to take, for example, a cheap pill?” Sanger helped Pincus get a small grant from Planned Parenthood to follow this line of research, and in 1953, she convinced wealthy philanthropist and biologist Katharine McCormick to fully fund the birth control project. Pincus, working with reproductive biologist Min-Chueh Chang and gynecologist John Rock, developed an oral contraceptive that was a combination of estrogen and progestin. Early human trials on a small scale had proven successful, but all forms of contraception were illegal in Massachusetts, so they had had to disguise the real goal by calling it “fertility research.” The team conducted large-scale trials in Puerto Rico in 1956, and the method proved almost 100 percent effective when used correctly. The Food and Drug Administration approved the oral contraceptive — popularly known as the Pill — in 1960, under the brand name Enovid.

In the preface to his book The Control of Fertility (1965), Pincus wrote: “There is more to discover than we now know. But in the blazing or flickering light of what we do know [...] willful prejudices fade, and our considered and tested knowledge offers a firm basis for what we can and should do.”

Pincus developed a rare blood disease, probably as a result of years of exposure to laboratory chemicals. He died in 1967.

It’s the birthday of parody song writer Tom Lehrer (1928), author of such songs as “The Vatican Rag,” “Masochism Tango,” and “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park.” Lehrer fell into a performing career after writing comic songs to entertain his friends at Harvard. He graduated in 1947 with a master’s in mathematics at the age of 19. He spent his 20s serving in the Army and occasionally writing and performing original parody songs.

In 1953, Lehrer spent $15 to record his original tunes and self-published Songs by Tom Lehrer. Sold at or near Harvard for $3 apiece; these albums migrated far and wide.

He eventually did some touring, becoming suddenly popular in 1957 in the U.K. when Princess Margaret endorsed his work. That popularity led to work on television, which resulted in a more political bent to his subjects. Lehrer didn’t really enjoy touring and claimed not to need “anonymous affection,” and in 1972 he played his last public performance and accepted a position at the University of California, Santa Cruz, teaching mathematics and musical theater.

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