Apr. 25, 2007

First TV in a Mennonite Family

by Julia Kasdorf

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Poem: "First TV in a Mennonite Family" by Julia Kasdorf, from Sleeping Preacher. © University of Pittsburgh Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

First TV in a Mennonite Family


The lid of the Chevy trunk couldn't close
on that wooden console with a jade screen
and gold flecks in the fabric over the speaker.

They sent us to bed then set it up
in the basement, as far from our rooms
and the dinner table as they could get,

out of sight for grandparents' visits.
The first morning, Mother studied the guide
and chose Captain Kangaroo for me,

but when we turned it on, the point of light
on the screen grew into black-and-white men
lifting a stretcher into the back of an ambulance.

Each click of the huge, plastic knob
flashed the same men, the same ambulance door
propped back like a broken wing.

After that, we were forbidden to watch everything
except the Captain and "I Love Lucy."
Yet, when Dad returned from business in Chicago,

I heard him tell Mom how police beat the kids
under his hotel window, and I knew whatever it was,
that vague, distant war had finally come.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of J. Anthony Lukas, (books by this author) born in New York City (1933). In 1976, Lukas saw a photograph of an anti-busing rally in Boston, in which a group of white protesters were attacking a black passerby with an American flag. At another anti-busing rally Lukas saw Senator Edward Kennedy being spat upon, kicked, pushed, and pelted with fruit. He decided that racial desegregation, and how it was affecting the lives of ordinary people, would be a great topic for a book.

He spent three years interviewing the members of three families in Boston—one lower-class black, one working-class Irish Catholic, and one upper-class white liberal. He even got a part-time teaching position at the schools of the families' children, and he traveled to Ireland and Nova Scotia to research the families' ancestries. Finally, after seven years of research and writing, he came out with Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families (1985). It won all of the major nonfiction book awards for 1985, including the Pulitzer Prize.

Lukas spent the last seven years of his life researching and writing his 880-page book Big Trouble (1998), about the conflict between mining companies and radical unionists in early 20th-century Idaho.

It's the birthday of Ella Fitzgerald, born in Newport News, Virginia, in 1918. She loved to sing and dance as a child; and when she was 16, she entered a contest at the Apollo Theater—at that time no more than a hip local club in Harlem. She had a dance routine worked out, but once she got on stage she lost her nerve. So instead of dancing, she sang. She won the contest and soon became a celebrity across all of New York. She joined Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington as the only performers who could draw audiences at the Apollo from south of 125th Street.

Marilyn Monroe was one of her biggest fans. Ella said, "I owe Marilyn a real debt. It was because of her that I played the Mocambo, a very popular nightclub in the '50s. She personally called the owner of the Mocambo, and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard. After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again."

It's the birthday of the poet and journalist James Fenton, (books by this author) born in Lincoln, England (1949). He hoped to become a foreign correspondent, but nobody would hire him, so in 1973, after winning a poetry award, he used the money to travel by himself to Vietnam and Cambodia. He arrived in Vietnam in 1973, just as the American forces were pulling out. Most of the journalists had pulled out as well, so Fenton was one of the few Westerners who witnessed first-hand the fall of Saigon.

Fenton wrote a lot of journalism about what he saw in Southeast Asia, but it took him years before he began writing poetry about his experiences. Then, in 1981, he published a poem called "Dead Soldiers" about a lunch he'd eaten on a battlefield with the military governor of Cambodia. It was the first poem he'd written about his experiences in Southeast Asia. The following year, Fenton published a whole collection of poems on the same subject, The Memory of War (1981), and it made him the most celebrated poet in England.

It's the birthday of novelist Padgett Powell, (books by this author) born in Gainesville, Florida (1952). He was a 20-year-old college student when he admitted to his favorite literature professor that he'd never read anything by Faulkner. She was horrified, and immediately gave him a copy of Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! which changed his life.

He enrolled in the creative writing program at the University of Houston, where one of his professors was the writer Donald Barthelme. Barthelme helped Powell publish his first novel, Edisto (1984). It's the story of a 12-year-old growing up on the South Carolina coastline—a kid whose college-professor mother is obsessed with turning him into a writer. Padgett Powell has gone on to write several more books, including A Woman Named Drown (1987), Edisto Revisited (1996), and Mrs. Hollingsworth's Men (2000).

It's the birthday of fiction writer Howard Garis, (books by this author) born in Binghamton, New York (1873). He's the creator of the pink-nosed elderly rabbit named Uncle Wiggily. He published an Uncle Wiggily story in the Newark News six days a week for 37 years.

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