Tuesday Oct. 18, 2016

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The Yawn

My visiting tall son
is sleepy. His sweet gape
brings back his father’s yawn.
Seeing our lost husband and lost father
suddenly conjured up, I laugh. My son
frowns. Does he think
it’s at him I’m laughing?
The cat opens her mouth to mew.
The orphaned piano: it yawns too.

“The Yawn” by Rachel Hadas from Questions in the Vestibule. ©Tri Quarterly Books, 2016. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick was first published as The Whale on this date in 1851. The novel begins with the famous line, “Call me Ishmael.” It continues: “Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation …”

The novel is about the mysterious Captain Ahab and his quest to hunt down the white whale, Moby-Dick, who cost him his leg on a previous voyage. Melville filled the book with symbolism and philosophy and Shakespearean rhetoric. The public didn’t get it and it only sold about 3,000 copies while Melville was alive.

It’s the birthday of singer-songwriter Chuck Berry born Charles Edward Anderson in St. Louis, Missouri (1926). He broke into the charts in 1955 with “Maybellene,” then followed it with “Roll Over, Beethoven,” and “Johnny B. Goode.”

Berry said: “The gateway to freedom … was somewhere close to New Orleans where most Africans were sorted through and sold. I had driven through New Orleans on tour and I’d been told my great-grandfather had lived way back up in the woods among the evergreens in a log cabin. I revived the era with a song about a colored boy named Johnny B. Goode. My first thought was to make his life follow as my own had come along, but I thought it would seem biased to white fans to say ‘colored boy’ and changed it to ‘country boy.’”

It was on this day in 1954 that the first transistor radio appeared on the market.

Transistors were a big breakthrough in electronics — a new way to amplify signals. They replaced vacuum tubes, which were fragile, slow to warm up, and unreliable. During World War II, there was a big funding push to try to update vacuum tubes, since they were used in radio-controlled bombs but didn’t work very well. A team of scientists at Bell Laboratories invented the first transistor technology in 1947. But the announcement didn’t make much of an impact, because transistors had limited use for everyday consumers — they were used mainly in military technology, telephone switching equipment, and hearing aids.

Several companies bought licenses from Bell, including Texas Instruments, who was determined to be the first to market with a transistor radio. Radios were mostly big, bulky devices that stayed in one place — usually in the living room — while the whole family gathered around to listen to programming. There were some portable radios made with vacuum tubes, but they were about the size of lunch boxes, they used heavy non-rechargeable batteries, they took a long time to start working while the tubes warmed up, and they were fragile. Texas Instruments was determined to create a radio that was small and portable, and to get it out for the Christmas shopping season. They produced the transistors, and they partnered with the Regency Division of Industrial Development Engineering Associates, who manufactured the actual radios. Their new radio, the Regency TR-1, turned on immediately, weighed half a pound, and could fit in your pocket. It cost $49.95, and more than 100,000 were sold.

Texas Instruments went on to pursue other projects, but a Japanese company called Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo decided to make transistor radios their main enterprise. They were concerned that their name was too difficult for an American audience to pronounce, so they decided to rebrand themselves with something simpler. They looked up the Latin word for sound, which was sonus. And they liked the term sonny boys — English slang that was used in Japan for exceptionally bright, promising boys. And so the company Sony was born. Soon transistor radios were cheap and prevalent.

With transistor radios, teenagers were able to listen to music out of their parents’ earshot. This made possible the explosion of a new genre of American music: rock and roll.

Today is the birthday of American journalist A. J. (Abbot Joseph) Liebling (books by this author), born in New York City (1904). His favorite subjects were journalism, boxing, and food. He worked as a sports writer for the New York Times for a while, and then one day his wealthy father offered to foot the bill if he wanted to give up his job and study in Paris for a year. Liebling was thrilled, but felt a little ashamed of accepting charity. He was also afraid his father would change his mind, so he lied and said he couldn’t go because he was about to propose to an older woman of dubious moral character. His story had the desired effect: his father wired the funds into Liebling’s account within a week, and booked his passage on a ship to Europe.

Liebling studied medieval literature at the Sorbonne for a year. He also fell in love with French food and French culture, a love that would last the rest of his life. He returned to Paris in 1939. By then, he had been a staff writer for The New Yorker for four years; the magazine sent him to cover the war in Europe. He stayed in Paris for less than a year, and after the city fell to the Germans in June 1940, he covered the war from Britain and Algeria. Liebling was present — an embedded journalist, as we would say today — at the D-Day invasion of Normandy, and was with the Allied forces when they liberated Paris.

Liebling’s essays and reportage from the war were collected in The Road Back to Paris (1944). He begins the book by remembering how he learned of the impending war: “On Sunday, September 3, 1939, everybody with the price of a newspaper knew that Great Britain and France were about to declare war on Germany, which had already invaded Poland.” Liebling went on to write about people he met on his first visit to the city in 1926. He wondered where they might be now, more than a decade later, and what they might be going through. A month after reading that newspaper article, he requested an overseas assignment. The editors of The New Yorker gave him almost total freedom in how he covered the war. Rather than covering the big political and military events unfolding in Europe, most of his essays were about how the war was affecting ordinary people like the ones he’d known in 1926.

Liebling published his D-Day account, “Cross-Channel Trip,” in the July 1, 1944, issue of The New Yorker and spends much of the account introducing readers to the men aboard his landing craft:

“Pendleton, a large, fair-haired fellow who was known to his shipmates as the Little Admiral, came from Neodesha, Kansas. ‘They never heard of the Coast Guard out there,’ he said. ‘Nobody but me. I knew I would have to go in some kind of service and I was reading in a Kansas City paper one day that the Coast Guard would send a station wagon to your house to get you if it was within a day’s drive of their recruiting station. So I wrote ’em. Never did like to walk.’

“Sitnitsky was washing underclothes at a sink aft of the galley once when I came upon him. When he saw me, he said, ‘The fois’ ting I’m gonna do when I get home is buy my mudder a Washington machine. I never realize what the old lady was up against.’”

After the war, Liebling was awarded the Cross of the Légion d’honneur by the French government for his war reporting.

Liebling, who said: “To the Parisians, and especially to the children, all Americans are now ‘héros du cinema.’ This is particularly disconcerting to sensitive war correspondents, if any, aware, as they are, that these innocent thanks belong to those American combat troops who won the beachhead and then made the breakthrough. There are few such men in Paris.”
And: “I can write better than anybody who can write faster, and I can write faster than anybody who can write better.”

And: “The world isn’t going backward, if you can just stay young enough to remember what it was really like when you were really young.”

And: “Cynicism is often the shamefaced product of inexperience.”

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