Saturday Oct. 1, 2016

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On the Interstate, my daughter tells me
she only has two questions. I’m relieved
because she usually has two hundred.
I say, Okay, let’s have them, and she asks,
What was there before there was anything?
Stupidly, I think I can answer this:
There was grass, forests, fields, meadows, rivers.
She stops me. No, Daddy. I mean before
there was anything at all, what was there?
I say that I don’t know, so then she asks,
Where do we go when we die? I tell her
I don’t know the answer to this either.
She looks out the side, and I look forward,
then she asks if we can have some music.

“Questions” by Joseph Mills from The Miraculous Turning. © Press 53, 2014. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It was on this date in 1920 that Scientific American magazine reported the news that radio would soon be used to transmit music into people’s homes. Eighteen years earlier, in 1902, the same magazine had published an article titled “How to Construct an Efficient Wireless Telegraphy Apparatus at Small Cost.” The 1902 article opened whole new vistas to American readers: the radio was technology that they could incorporate into their personal lives. Four years later, a man named Reginald Fessenden transmitted the first speech and music program.

From then on, the idea of radio for home use grew by leaps and bounds, especially after World War I ended. Scientists and laypeople alike stopped thinking of radio as a mere novelty or — at best — a successor to the telegraph in the transmission of crucial information. They started imagining all kinds of ways that radio could enrich people’s daily lives. The National Bureau of Standards in Washington, D.C., had set up a Radio Laboratory to test transmissions of various features, including entertainment programs. People had been listening to music in their homes since Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, but phonographs had their drawbacks: the players were fairly expensive, and a record could only hold a few minutes of music. So, in late 1919 and early 1920, Bureau of Standards researchers turned their attention to the radio transmission of music. Every Friday night, from 8:30 to 11:00, they presented a live “experimental” concert, which they would attempt to broadcast to volunteer radio enthusiasts in the area. The hobbyists would then report the results to the bureau’s Radio Laboratory. Once this idea looked like it had legs, Scientific American ran with the story.

The magazine reported: “Music can be performed at any place, radiated into the air through an ordinary radio transmitting set and received at any other place, even though hundreds of miles away,” adding that “the music received can be made as loud as desired by suitable operation of the receiving apparatus.”

It’s the birthday of American novelist Tim O’Brien (books by this author), born in Austin, Minnesota (1946). O’Brien is best known for his series of novels about Vietnam, including The Things They Carried (1990), which is now considered a staple in high school and college classrooms.

O’Brien was the son of an insurance salesman and an elementary school teacher. He moved to Worthington, Minnesota, the “turkey capital of the world,” and spent his childhood playing shortstop in the Ben Franklin Little League, visiting the public library, and playing army games with his friends. Worthington is located on Lake Okebena, which served as a setting for many of the scenes in The Things They Carried. He remembers being fascinated by his father’s accounts of his World War II experiences at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, which had been published in the New York Times.

He majored in political science at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he was also the student body president. After he graduated, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. He served in Vietnam for three years in the 46th Infantry. O’Brien was hit by shrapnel during a grenade attack and received the Purple Heart.

When his tour of duty was complete, he went to graduate school at Harvard University and interned at the Washington Post, where he began writing about his experiences during the war. He said: “The war was just full of stories happening to me as a soldier and to all the men around me and to the country itself and to the Vietnamese. And the war will be remembered through stories.”

His first book, the memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, was published in 1973. O’Brien published several other books, including Northern Lights (1975), Going After Cacciato (1978), and The Nuclear Age (1985), before publishing The Things They Carried (1990), which was an international best-seller. The book is a series of interrelated stories about Vietnam that blur fact and fiction. The narrator is even named Tim O’Brien. O’Brien says the style came to him because “I wanted to write a book that was, on the surface, you know, about Vietnam, but underneath the surface, I wanted to write about storytelling itself — ‘Why do we make things up? Why don’t we just report what happens in the world?’”

The title of the book comes from O’Brien’s pondering the physical and metaphorical weight of the war on soldiers. He says, “What we carry says a lot about the people we are … it’s telling, the things that we carry.” In The Things They Carried, O’Brien writes: “Every third or fourth man carried a claymore antipersonnel mine — 3.5 pounds with its firing device. They all carried fragmentation grenades — 14 ounces each. They all carried at least one M-18 colored smoke grenade — 24 ounces. Some carried CS or tear gas grenades. Some carried white phosphorous grenades. They carried all they could bear and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.”

The Washington Star called The Things We Carried “the single greatest piece of work to come out of Vietnam.” Tim O’Brien received the Pritzker Military Library Literature Award (2013), which carries a $100,000 purse.

On writing, Tim O’Brien says: “Beyond anything, it seems to me, a writer performs this sitting-down act primarily in search of those rare, very intense moments of artistic pleasure that are as real in their way as the pleasures that can come from any other source — the rush of endorphins, for instance, that accompanies the making of a nice little bit of dialogue. And this isn’t to say that writing isn’t painful — and it is, most of the time — but at the same time, there is no pleasure without the pain.”

It’s the birthday of the man who said, “America did not invent human rights. In a very real way, human rights invented America.” That’s Jimmy Carter (books by this author), born in Plains, Georgia (1924). He took over the family peanut farm after his father died in 1953, and he expanded the farm into a fertilizer business, a farm supply business, and a peanut-shelling plant. He got interested in politics after he refused to join a citizens’ group that opposed the integration of schools. He became the governor of Georgia and then, in 1977, the 39th president of the United States. Carter said he wanted to end what he called “the imperial presidency.” He walked down Pennsylvania Avenue for his inauguration, often wore informal clothes at official appearances, and sold the presidential yacht. Jimmy Carter said: “A strong nation, like a strong person, can afford to be gentle, firm, thoughtful, and restrained. It can afford to extend a helping hand to others. It is a weak nation, like a weak person, that must behave with bluster and boasting and rashness and other signs of insecurity.”

The first-ever World Series game was played on this date in 1903. The Pittsburgh Pirates were playing the Boston Americans. Pittsburgh won the first game with a score of seven to three, but in the end, Boston won four games in a row to take the contest five games to three. Because it was an informal and voluntary arrangement between the two clubs, there were no plans to repeat it, and so there was no World Series in 1904. But by 1905, the World Series became formally established by both leagues and became an annual event.

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