Apr. 12, 1998


by Seamus Heaney


Today's Reading: "Postscript" by Seamus Heaney from THE SPIRIT LEVEL, published by Farrar Straus Giroux.

It's the birthday of novelist SCOTT TUROW, in Chicago, 1949, author of the 1989 legal thriller Presumed Innocent, written in a spiral notebook while he was riding to his law office on a Chicago commuter train every day. It took him a couple years to get it drafted that way, then he quit his job for three months to finish it up. He sent it to his agent and started back to work, and the manuscript fetched the highest advance that Farrar, Straus & Giroux ever paid for a first novel, $200,000. It spent 44 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. He followed that up with another bestseller, The Burden of Proof.

FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT died on this day in 1945 in his vacation home of Warm Springs, Georgia. Even though he'd been in a wheelchair (from polio) for years, he always gave his speeches standing up until the last few months when he was getting weaker and weaker and had to remain seated, a fact his opponent in the fall election, Thomas Dewey, jumped on and tried to make political hay out of. But voters rallied behind FDR and sent him back to office for a record fourth term. He was going over some papers at his desk while an artist was sketching his portrait. He suddenly pressed his hand to his temple and said, "I have a terrific headache" and slumped over unconscious. He was 63 and died of a cerebral hemorrhage.

In his will, FDR left nearly a half-million dollars to the Warm Springs Foundation, which was a spa for polio sufferers like himself. Ten years later on this day, THE SALK VACCINE was announced for polio. At that time the disease was striking about 58,000 Americans a year, killing 3,000 of them. Researcher Jonas Salk had begun testing the vaccine on himself and his family a year earlier, then he tried it on polio patients, and finally on a group of almost 2 million school children until April 12, 1955 when he announced it was safe and effective. A nationwide inoculation campaign began immediately, and within a half-dozen years new cases of the disease were down to a 1,000 a year.

THE CIVIL WAR began on this day in 1861 when Confederates fired on the federal Fort Sumter in the Charleston, South Carolina harbor. The fort was under construction at the time and had about 85 troops on hand. President Lincoln had just been inaugurated a month earlier and had immediately angered southern states by opposing the Second Crittenden Amendment that would have allowed states to be either "slave" or "free"; as a result six states joined South Carolina in seceding from the Union and forming the Confederate States of America. They shelled Fort Sumter for 34 hours, but no one was killed. Nevertheless, the Confederates celebrated their victory and during the party a cannon exploded and a rebel soldier, Dan Hough became the first casualty of the Civil War a war that would last almost four years to the day and kill another half-million people.

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