Monday

Jun. 4, 2007

Patriarch at the Lake

by David Swanger

MONDAY, 4 JUNE, 2007
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Poem: "Patriarch at the Lake" by David Swanger, from Wayne's College of Beauty. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Patriarch at the Lake

The aunts, splendid, pale
and ample in their bathing suits,
unfurled tablecloths, challa, melons,
seltzer water in blue bottles, and
honeyed cakes and other cakes.

After the required hour everyone
but Grandpa waded, stirring silt
around our ankles, enjoying the mud.
Then, as if called by voices beyond
us, the old man rose, his belly taut,
trunks reaching his knees, his shins
white as fish, and walked without
watching the ground toward water.

We parted to let him pass, we receded
onto the beach; he prowed outward
and swam. He remembered, he stroked
and roiled and spumed his way away
then back to us, his shorebound spawn.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1919, the 19th amendment to the Constitution was passed by Congress giving women the right to vote.


It's the anniversary of two crucial battles in World War II. In 1940, the British forces completed their evacuation from Dunkirk, and on this day in 1942, the Battle of Midway took place.

Winston Churchill, who'd become prime minister that spring, had sent British forces to Belgium to try to stop the advance of the Nazi invasion, but the British soldiers were unprepared for the superior German army. They were completely overwhelmed. They were bottled up in the little coastal town of Dunkirk. They had abandoned equipment on the way, leaving the road to Dunkirk littered with empty vehicles and piles of gear.

The Nazi tanks had been in close pursuit, but when the British troops reached the coast, Hitler gave a personal order to stop the invasion. The Nazi commander was infuriated. He knew that he could probably wipe out the British in a single battle, and that the war for western Europe could be finished in a few days. One of Hitler's associates at the time wrote in his diary, "The Fuhrer is terribly nervous. Frightened by his own success, he's afraid to take any chance and would rather pull the reins on us."

The British estimated they had about two days to evacuate, but when the British ships showed up to carry the troops across the channel, they found the harbor too shallow for most of the ships to reach the shore. Almost 500,000 men were stranded on the beach, and Nazi bombers began to attack from the air. The British government sent out a request for all persons with seaworthy vessels to help in the evacuation, and a great flotilla of fishing boats, lifeboats, paddle steamers and yachts came across the English Channel and saved the British army.

What really turned the tide, however, was Winston Churchill's decision to turn the whole event into a symbol of bravery and perseverance. When the soldiers arrived in Britain, they were given a hero's welcome, with parades and cheering crowds. One solider said, "We might have been the heroes of some great victory instead of a beaten army returning home, having lost most of its equipment."

The Battle of Midway took place in the Central Pacific Ocean—Midway Island—the last American outpost in the Pacific. The Japanese navy hoped to take control of it and use it to stage an invasion of Hawaii, but a squadron of American bombers who had wandered off course accidentally stumbled upon the Japanese fleet while most of planes were refueling. Fuel lines on the Japanese carriers caught fire, munitions exploded, and hundreds of Japanese sailors died in an instant. The battle went on for three more days, but the Japanese never fully recovered from that first attack, and never won another decisive naval battle for the rest of the war.


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