Sep. 23, 1999

While Eating a Pear

by Billy Collins

Broadcast Date: THURSDAY: September 23, 1999

Poem: "While Eating a Pear" by Billy Collins from The Art of Drowning, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995.

It's RAY CHARLES' 69th birthday, born in Albany, Georgia, 1930. He grew up in Florida during the Depression, and said, "You hear folks talking about being poor; even compared to other blacks, we were on the bottom of the ladder looking up. Nothing below us except ground." He started playing piano when he was five years old, and glaucoma blinded him two years later.

It's the birthday in 1926 of the tenor sax player JOHN COLTRANE, born in Hamlet, North Carolina. His grandfather was a minister, and Coltrane grew up listening to gospel music. He broke in with Dizzy Gillespie's Big Band, then joined the Miles Davis Quintet in 1955.

It's the birthday in Kiev of the American sculptor LOUISE NEVELSON, born in 1899. Her family moved to Rockland, Maine when she was a girl. She worked for years in poverty, but said, "In my studio I'm as happy as a cow in her stall."

It's the birthday of political columnist WALTER LIPPMANN, New York, 1889. In 1914, Lippmann helped found The New Republic, and in 1931 began a column for the New York Herald Tribune called "Today and Tomorrow." He wrote more than 4,000 of them over the years, dozens of books, won two Pulitzers, and for millions of Americans during the Depression, he was the conscience of the nation.

It was around noon on this day in 1806 that the LEWIS AND CLARK EXPEDITION returned to St. Louis from their great trek to discover and map a route to the Pacific Northwest. They'd started in St. Louis in the spring of 1804, paddling up the Missouri River, and were only supposed to be gone a year or so — so by this time everybody had long given them up for dead.

It was on this day in 1779, during the Revolutionary War, that JOHN PAUL JONES said, "I have not yet begun to fight." Jones was commanding the 42 gun Bonhomme Richard and was locked in battle with the British off the east coast of England — a battle Jones eventually won.

HARVARD UNIVERSITY held its first commencement on this day in 1642.

It's the birthday of CAESAR AUGUSTUS, in 63 BC, Rome, the founder of the Roman Empire. When his uncle, Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC, Caesar Augustus was only 18 years old, but Julius had named the boy his successor, so he took control of the Senate and for the next dozen years held an uneasy alliance together with various political rivals. In 31 BC he defeated Antony, and became monarch of the Empire. His reign until AD 14 is remembered as the high-water mark of the Roman Empire.

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