Apr. 25, 1998

A Bum's Life

by Hal Sirowitz


Today's Reading: "A Bum's Life" by Hal Sirowitz from MOTHER SAID, published by Crown Publishers (1996).

It's the birthday in Newport News, Virginia, 1918, of ELLA FITZGERALD. She was just 19 years old when Down Beat magazine named her top female singer of the year, a title she'd repeat 21 times, including an unprecedented 18 times in a row. She broke into singing by accident: she wanted to be a dancer, and she drew straws with some girlfriends to see which of them would enter an amateur contest at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. Once she got onstage, she froze, and all of a sudden started singing "The Object of My Affection" - a tune done by Connee Boswell that she'd memorized on the radio. "Once up there," she said, "I felt the acceptance and love from the audience and I knew I wanted to sing before people the rest of my life."

It was on this day in 1898 that William Sydney Porter entered the federal penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio, where he'd start writing short stories under the name of O. HENRY. There's still some controversy over whether or not he deserved to be there. In the early 1890s he was clerking at a bank in Austin, Texas, and in 1896 he was charged with embezzlement. He panicked and before trial fled to Honduras where he lived for two years. His wife became seriously ill, though, and he came back to U.S. to be with her and give himself up to authorities. He got the lightest sentence possible, three years, and some say that he was shielding somebody else for the crime.

It's the birthday of MAUDE HART LOVELACE in 1892, Mankato, Minnesota, who wrote about turn-of-the-century life in Minnesota in a series of books called the Betsy-Tacy novels. These were based largely on her own family and friends, and she re-named herself Betsy Ray in the books, from Deep Valley, Minnesota.

It's the birthday in 1875, Bologna, Italy of the physicist and radio pioneer, GUGLIELMO MARCONI. In the late 1800s the German scientist Heinrich Hertz had discovered that electricity could be transmitted through space from one point to another and that when an electric spark leaped the gap between two metal spheres, oscillation occurred. When he was 20 years old, Marconi started working in his attic in Bologna, creating different little inventions on the belief that those oscillations could carry signals. One day in early 1895 he made a bell ring by sending and receiving these oscillations across his attic workshop. He took his experiments outside, gradually increasing the distance between the sending and receiving units. A year later he was up to two miles. By 1901 when he was 26, he sent the first signals across the Atlantic - from the coast of England in Cornwall, to St. John's in Newfoundland. In 1909 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics.

Daniel Defoe's novel, THE LIFE AND STRANGE ADVENTURES OF ROBINSON CRUSOE, was published on this date in 1719, London. It was fiction but based on the true story of Alexander Selkirk, a seaman who in 1704 began four years of life alone on a little island off of South America. He was ultimately rescued and returned to England a hero. Defoe was 60 years old at the time and working as a journalist, and interviewed Selkirk for the story. In real life, Selkirk had simply asked to be put on the island because he didn't like the conditions on his ship, but in Defoe's novel, Robinson Crusoe's boat is smashed by a wave, and he makes it ashore this way:

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