Wednesday Nov. 30, 2016

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November, 1967

Dr. Zhivago was playing at the Paramount
Theater in St. Cloud. That afternoon,
we went into Russia,

and when we came out, the snow
was falling—the same snow
that fell in Moscow.

The sky had turned black velvet.
We’d been through the Revolution
and the frozen winters.

In the Chevy, we waited for the heater
to melt ice on the windshield,
clapping our hands to keep warm.

On the highway, these two things:
a song from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
and that semi-truck careening by.

Now I travel through the dark without you
and sometimes I turn up the radio, hopeful
the way you were, no matter what.

“November, 1967” by Joyce Sutphen from First Words. © Red Dragonfly Press, 2010. Reprinted with permission.   (buy now)

It’s the birthday of the man known as “The Dean of American Letters,” Mark Twain (books by this author), born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in Florida, Missouri (1835). He grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, a port town on the banks of the Mississippi, and used to love watching the steamboats slide by as a child. Twain based two of his most famous books, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), on life in Hannibal.

When he was 12, his father died of pneumonia and Twain left school to apprentice to a printer for 50 cents a week. Always a mischievous and naughty youngster, he enjoyed writing short, funny stories. His older brother Orion was so impressed that he hired his little brother to write humorous sketches for the newspaper he owned, The Hannibal Journal, setting in place a lifetime of journalism, novel writing, and satirical essays.

Twain kicked about for the next 20 years, becoming a steamboat pilot, a prospector for silver and gold, a Confederate cavalry militiaman, and a real-estate speculator. He wrote about his days as river pilot in his book Life on the Mississippi (1883) and his days traveling the Wild West in Roughing It (1872). Roughing It was a favorite book for U.S. astronauts Frank Borman and Jim Lovell, who read passages aloud to each other as they orbited the Earth on the Gemini VI for 14 days in December 1965.

Twain first gained national attention for his story, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County (1865), which he wrote in a cabin on Jackass Hill in Tuolumne County. It was originally called Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog, and it’s about a greedy man who will bet on anything, whether it’s a frog or a bug. Twain disliked the published version, which he said was “full of damnable errors of grammar and deadly inconsistencies of spelling.”

Mark Twain favored white linen shirts and suits and smoked 20 cigars and countless pipes every day. He first fell in love with his wife, Olivia, when her brother showed him a photograph while they were on ship together. Twain said: “I do believe that young filly has broken my heart. That only leaves me with one option, for her to mend it.” On their first outing together, he and Olivia went to a reading by Charles Dickens. She turned down his marriage proposals three times before accepting. For the rest of their lives together, she edited his novels, essays, and lectures.

It’s the birthday of Johnathan Swift (books by this author) born in Dublin (1667) Swift’s masterpiece was Gulliver’s Travels (1726), the story of a man journeying through a series of exotic places and meeting all kinds of strange creatures, including a race of miniature people, a race of giants, scholars who think so much that they constantly run into each other, immortals who can’t remember anything, wise and virtuous horses, and a disgusting race of beings called Yahoos, which he eventually realizes are humans. The novel was full of vicious inside jokes about the politicians of the day, and Swift was so nervous about publishing it that he dropped the manuscript off at the publisher’s house in the middle of the night.

Today is the birthday of Winston Churchill (books by this author), born at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, England (1874). He had an unhappy childhood, and was a poor student, so his father settled on a military career for the boy. He served in Cuba and, later, India. He read extensively during this time, to make up for his spotty education, and in 1899 he resigned his military post to become a politician and a writer. He lost his first Parliamentary election by a narrow margin, and went to South Africa to report on the Boer War for the Morning Post. He was taken prisoner there after rescuing an armored train, then escaped from the military prison. He returned home a hero.

He had a speech impediment, which affected his confidence in debates, and though he was a master of prepared speeches, he suffered in impromptu ones. One Conservative leader said he carried “heavy but not very mobile guns.” He became known for his ability to rally disheartened Britons during World War II. One of many examples: “The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”

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