Tuesday Nov. 1, 2016

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Ray at 14

Bless this boy, born with the strong face
of my older brother, the one I loved most,
who jumped with me from the roof
of the playhouse, my hand in his hand.
On Friday nights we watched Twilight Zone
and he let me hold the bowl of popcorn,
a blanket draped over our shoulders,
saying, Don’t be afraid. I was never afraid
when I was with my big brother
who let me touch the baseball-size muscles
living in his arms, who carried me on his back
through the lonely neighborhood,
held tight to the fender of my bike
until I made him let go.
The year he was fourteen
he looked just like Ray, and when he died
at twenty-two on a roadside in Germany
I thought he was gone forever.
But Ray runs into the kitchen: dirty T-shirt,
torn jeans, pushes back his sleeve.
He says, Feel my muscle, and I do.

“Ray at 14” by Dorianne Laux from Smoke. © Dorianne Laux, 2000. Used by permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of BOA Editions, Ltd., www.boaeditions.org.  (buy now)

On this date in 1952, the United States detonated “Mike,” the code name for the first hydrogen bomb. The H-bomb was a thousand times more powerful than the atomic, or fission, bombs that the United States had dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many scientists tried to delay the testing of the hydrogen bomb, because the presidential election would be held only three days later. The new president — whether it ended up being Dwight Eisenhower or Adlai Stevenson — would have to deal with the fallout from a test he had not ordered. But sitting president Harry Truman decided to proceed anyway.

The test took place on Elugelab Island, part of the Eniwetok atoll in the Marshall Islands, about 3,000 miles west of Hawaii. It was detonated from a ship 30 miles away. The bomb completely obliterated the island on which it had stood, and wiped out animal and plant life on the surrounding islands. The mushroom cloud rose 120,000 feet into the atmosphere.

Because “Mike” was so large — 20 feet long — it wasn’t practical to use as a weapon. It was intended to prove that the concept of a multistage nuclear fusion reaction that had been developed by Edward Teller and Stanislaw Ulam would actually work. Edward Teller knew the detonation had been a success when he picked up shock waves on his seismometer in Berkeley, California.

The successful test of the thermonuclear device gave the United States an edge in the arms race, but not for long. The Soviet Union detonated a hydrogen bomb the following year. By 1980, seven countries had their own thermonuclear devices; most recently, North Korea claimed to have successfully tested a hydrogen bomb last January.

It’s the birthday of the playwright A.R. Gurney (books by this author), born Albert Ramsdell Gurney Jr. in Buffalo, New York (1930). In the Buffalo of his youth, the theater was the center of town, and both of his grandmothers had season tickets to the theater. But none of his cousins would agree to go with their grandmas, so he went every Sunday, and he loved it.

He has gone on to write more than 40 plays, plus one-acts, a libretto, and three novels. His plays include Scenes from American Life (1971), Love Letters (1989), Sylvia (1995), and more recently, Family Furniture (2013).

It’s the birthday of novelist Susanna Clarke (books by this author), born in Nottingham, England (1959). Clarke wrote the international best-seller Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (2004), an 800-page story about two quarrelling 19th-century magicians in England who do things like move Brussels to America. The book has over 200 footnotes and contains a novel within a novel.

It’s the birthday of Baroness Mitchison (books by this author), a Scottish writer best known for her novels The Conquered (1923) and The Corn King and the Spring Queen (1931), which are considered some of the finest historical novels ever written. Mitchison was born Naomi Mary Margaret Mitchison (1897) in Edinburgh, Scotland, the daughter of a physiologist. Her family was of landed stock and could trace their lineage back to the 13th century.

Her family encouraged her education, and she taught herself Latin and Greek at early age. She also had a fascination with science, and she and her brother collaborated on a series of experiments with mice and guinea pigs to explore the role of genetics. They published a paper called “Reduplication of Mice” in 1915 that is considered one of the first examples of Mendelian genetic scholarship. It’s still used today.

Mitchison was a vocal feminist and birth control advocate who had an open marriage with her husband, which she explored humorously in her autobiography You May Well Ask: A Memoir (1979).

Mitchison wrote over 90 books during her lifetime, including Cloud Cuckoo Land (1925), which takes place in fifth-century Greece, and We Have Been Warned (1935), which she based on her journeys in the Soviet Union and which was promptly censored and banned for its frank portrayal of sexual behavior. Mitchison said the book, “alienated readers on the left, horrified those on the political right.”

She was a compulsive writer who pounded out stories on trains, airplanes, and on typewriters while guests to her house strummed guitars, sang, and drank. She could be volatile and once threw a half-plucked partridge at a guest after a political argument. Mitchison shot sheep for dinner and liked jumping over bonfires at midnight.

She moved comfortably among genres, even trying her hand at science fiction with novels like Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962) and Solution Three (1975). She was a good friend of J.R.R. Tolkien and served as one of his early proofreaders for The Lord of the Rings, though they later had a falling out because she called him “grandiose” and felt his books lacked female perspective.

Mitchison died at 101 years old. On her 90th birthday, she was asked if she had any regrets and she answered, “Yes, all the men I never slept with. Imagine!”

It’s the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Stephen Crane (books by this author), born in Newark (1871), whose novel The Red Badge of Courage (1895) came out when he was just 24. It’s about the Civil War soldier Henry Fleming who runs away from his first real battle, wanders through the wilderness, stumbling upon corpses and wounded soldiers, until he finally joins back up with his regiment and fights well on the front line of a major battle. Crane had been inspired to write the book by some old magazines with illustrated articles about the war, but people said it was the most realistic war novel ever written, and no one could believe that its author was a 24-year-old who’d never been in battle himself. Civil War veterans wrote in to newspapers claiming that they had fought beside Crane in various battles. The whole experience made Crane feel like a fraud. He wrote to an editor at the time, “[I believe] that the nearer a writer gets to life, the greater he becomes as an artist.” So he decided that he had to see a real war himself.

The Red Badge of Courage begins: “The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. As the landscape changed from brown to green, the army awakened, and began to tremble with eagerness at the noise of rumors. It cast its eyes upon the roads, which were growing from long troughs of liquid mud to proper thoroughfares. A river, amber-tinted in the shadow of its banks, purled at the army’s feet; and at night, when the stream had become of a sorrowful blackness, one could see across it the red, eyelike gleam of hostile camp-fires set in the low brows of the distant hills.”

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