Dec. 7, 2004


by Billy Collins

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Poem: "Passengers" by Billy Collins, from Sailing Alone Around the Room © Random House. Reprinted with permission.


At the gate, I sit in a row of blue seats
with the possible company of my death,
this sprawling miscellany of people -
carry-on bags and paperbacks -

that could be gathered in a flash
into a band of pilgrims on the last open road.
Not that I think
if our plane crumpled into a mountain

we would all ascend together,
holding hands like a ring of sky divers,
into a sudden gasp of brightness,
or that there would be some common spot

for us to reunite to jubilize the moment,
some spaceless, pillarless Greece
where we could, at the count of three,
toss our ashes into the sunny air.

It's just that the way that man has his briefcase
so carefully arranged,
the way that girl is cooling her tea,
and the flow of the comb that woman

passes through her daughter's hair...
and when you consider the altitude,
the secret parts of the engines,
and all the hard water and the deep canyons below...

well, I just think it would be good if one of us
maybe stood up and said a few words,
or, so as not to involve the police,
at least quietly wrote something down.

Literary and Historical Notes:

In 1941 on this day, the Japanese attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor. Early in the morning 183 Japanese fighter planes took off from aircraft carriers in the Pacific Ocean. They used broadcasts from Honolulu radio stations to help them navigate. The planes arrived off the coast of the island of Oahu, Hawaii, shortly before 8:00 in the morning. Radar at Pearl Harbor had picked up the fleet, but the Americans assumed the planes were B-17 bombers coming from California. Bombs began to drop over the docks at Pearl Harbor along "battleship row." Approximately an hour later 168 more planes appeared dropping more bombs. Eight ships were sunk or severely damaged and 347 U.S. military airplanes were destroyed. The battleship Arizona exploded, killing nearly all of the crew on board, accounting for 1,177 of the total of 2,300 American deaths at Pearl Harbor. The ship burned for days after the attack due to the fuel on board.

Up until that point President Roosevelt had refused to join in the Second World War going on overseas. After the attack the president announced in a short radio broadcast to the country that lasted less than 10 minutes, that December 7th was a date that would "live in infamy." Congress declared war on Japan the following morning.

It's the birthday of novelist Willa Cather, born on a farm near the town of Winchester, Virginia (1873). When she was 9 years old, her family moved to Red Cloud, Nebraska, where the Cathers lived in the "Story and a Half House" which appears in her novels. Eleven people lived in the house, and all of the children slept together in the attic.

Red Cloud became the setting and inspiration for many of her novels, and the characters in her novels were drawn heavily upon the frontier spirit of the Bohemian, Swedish and other European emigrants as well as the Native Americans of the region who settled the prairie along the Divide.

While growing up, Willa Cather was friends with the town physician who allowed her to assist with a limb amputation. When she was 14, Cather went to the local barber for a crew cut and began wearing men's clothes, a habit she continued into college. Sometimes she went by the name, William Cather Jr., and sometimes William Cather M.D. In a classmate's album she wrote that perfect misery was doing needlework and perfect happiness was amputating limbs.

After graduating from high school, Cather enrolled in pre-med classes at Lincoln, but then switched to English. She became a regular columnist for the State Journal. Cather graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1895. She moved to New York to teach English and write for a variety of newspapers and journals, including McClure's magazine, where she was the managing editor for six years. In 1912 she took a trip to the southwest and was inspired her to quit her job and write novels. She said, "Life began for me when I ceased to admire and began to remember."

In 1923 Willa Cather won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel, One of Ours (1922), about a Nebraska farm boy who refuses to settle for a ready-made fortune and instead went off to fight in World War I.

In 1925, her novel A Lost Lady was made into a silent film staring Irene Rich, who often starred opposite Will Rogers. The film premiered in Cather's old hometown of Red Cloud, Nebraska.

In 2001, the editorial board at The Modern Library named her novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.

It's the birthday of journalist and correspondent Heywood Campbell Broun, born in Brooklyn, New York (1888). Broun grew up the privileged son of a large printing plant owner, Heywood Cox Broun, a Scottish emigrant. Heywood Jr. spent most of his life and career as a journalist and political activist fighting for the underdog.

Broun attended exclusive private schools before going off to Harvard University, yet he never finished his degree, instead he left Harvard a few credits short of graduation in 1910.

In the 1920's, Broun wrote a column called "It Seems to Me" for The New York World. Broun's column pioneered the Op-Ed format of journalism, featuring personal views independent of the paper's editorial stance. His personal commentary was sometimes amusing and often highly critical, usually speaking for the underprivileged. This column made him one of the most loved figures in journalism.

In his lifetime Broun was a prolific writer, who could reportedly turn out a column in 30 minutes, and was responsible for some 21,000,000 words. He said, "For the truth there is no deadline." His career spanned many talents, including sports writing, drama criticism, war correspondent and syndicated columnist. He wrote for numerous journals and newspapers including: the Nation, the New Republican, the New York Times, the New Yorker and the New York Post.

In 1933 Heywood founded The Newspaper Guild. Although he had always led a comfortable life and was paid well for his work, he wanted to found a union that would protect the rights of reporters and newspaper employees. His contemporaries called him "The Presiding Saint" of the Newspaper Guild and he was reelected president every year until his death from pneumonia in 1939. Upon his death, president Franklin D. Roosevelt said, "He was a hard fighter, but always a fair adversary, and no matter for whom he worked he wore no man's collar."

Broun said, "I doubt whether the world holds for anyone a more soul-stirring surprise than the first adventure with ice-cream."

It's the birthday of Susan Minot, born in Boston, Massachusetts, (1956). Minot grew up in a family of seven, in Manchester in a white clapboard mansion overlooking the ocean.

Several other Minot children also became writers, and wrote stories based on their family which included an alcoholic father and a mother who was killed in an accident. Members of the Minot family say they got their love for telling stories from family dinners. Her brother George said of the family, "If you can tell a story, then you get a moment of glory, you get love."

Susan Minot was first discovered by an editor at E. P. Dutton after she published a story in Ben Sonnenberg's Grand Street and then a second story in The New Yorker. Her first book, Monkeys (1986), is a semi-autobiographical novel based on a large upper class family of seven living in New England. Monkeys was reprinted in several languages and received the prestigious Prix Femina Etranger award in France.

After the success of Monkeys, Minot went to Tuscany to write Lust and Other Stories (1989), a book of short stories about the trials of single life in New York City, and she worked on the script for Bernard Bertolucci's film Stealing Beauty (1996). She also taught for the graduate writing program at Columbia University. Her next novel, Evening (1998), is about a middle-aged woman reflecting back on her life as she dies of cancer.

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