Jul. 27, 2007

The Friday Night Fights

by Ronald Wallace

FRIDAY, 27 JULY, 2007
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Poem: "The Friday Night Fights" by Ronald Wallace, from Long for This World: New and Selected Poems. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Friday Night Fights

Every Friday night we watched the fights.
Me, ten years old and stretched out on the couch;
my father, in his wheelchair, looking on
as Rocky Marciano, Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson
fought and won the battles we could not.
Him, twenty-nine, and beat up with disease;
me, counting God among my enemies
for what he'd done to us. We never touched.

But in between the rounds we'd sing how we'd
Look sharp! Feel sharp! & Be sharp! With Gillette
And Howard Cosell, the Bela Lugosi of boxing.
Out in the kitchen, my mother never understood
our need for blood, how this was as close as we'd get
to love-bobbing and weaving, feinting and sparring.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1940 that Bugs Bunny made his debut in a short animated film called A Wild Hare. Bugs Bunny was designed to be the epitome of cool, modeled on Groucho Marx, with a carrot rather than a cigar. He is never fazed by what the world throws at him. He nonchalantly chews on his carrot in the face of all his enemies, speaking in a Brooklyn accent. A Wild Hare, which premiered on this day, told the story of Elmer Fudd's attempt to hunt rabbits, only to have Bugs Bunny thwart him at every turn. Bugs Bunny's first line in the cartoon, when he meets Elmer Fudd, is, "What's up, doc?" It was a phrase that one of the writers remembered people saying where he grew up in Texas. It got such a big laugh in the theaters that the writers decided to make it a catchphrase.

It's the birthday of Joseph Mitchell (books by this author), born in Fairmont, North Carolina (1908). He wrote mainly about eccentric people living on the fringe in New York City, including gypsies, alcoholics, the homeless, fishmongers, and a band of Mohawk Indians who had no fear of heights and worked as riveters on skyscrapers and bridges. Most of his journalism is collected in the book Up in the Old Hotel (1992).

He interviewed all kinds of criminals, evangelists, politicians, and celebrities. He wrote about the Fulton Fish Market, the clammers of Long Island, and the oystermen of Staten Island. He wrote about gin-mill owners, con artists, a flea-circus operator. He believed that he was a good interviewer because he had lost the ability to detect insanity. He listened to one and all, no matter how crazy, as if they were sane. He said, "The best talk is artless, the talk of people trying to reassure or comfort themselves."

In 1965, Mitchell published Joe Gould's Secret, about a man who claimed to have learned the language of seagulls and was translating the poetry of Longfellow into their language. Critics called it one of the strangest and most interesting nonfiction character portraits ever written. It was Mitchell's last book. He kept going to his New Yorker office every day for the next 30 years, but he never published another word.

It's the birthday of poet Hilaire Belloc (books by this author), born in Paris, France (1870). In his lifetime, he was known for his more serious works of journalism and essays. He wrote almost 150 books for adults. But he's known to us today for his books of humorous verse about naughty children, including The Bad Child's Book of Beasts (1896) and Cautionary Tales for Children in 1907, about a series of children who die violently, because they have chewed string, told lies, slammed doors, or thrown stones.

It was on this day in 1793 that Maximilien de Robespierre, became the head of the Committee of Public Safety, which led to the Reign of Terror in France. Robespierre had started out as an idealistic lawyer, defending the poor people in court, and he often spoke out against the absolute authority of the king. But after the French Revolution, there was fear of civil war. In order to keep French citizens in line, Robespierre came up with a program that became known as the Terror, and he advocated the use of the new guillotine. At first Robespierre executed people who had supported the monarchy. But then he began to execute revolutionaries who were too moderate. And finally, he began to execute people who had merely insulted him or opposed him on one issue or another. And when he singled out someone as a political enemy, he often executed that person's whole family. In a single year, more than 2,000 people were beheaded for having opposed the French Revolution.

Eventually, members of the National Convention began to realize that no one was safe, and even they could be the next victims. So they turned on Robespierre. For more than a year Robespierre had been executing people in the public square to cheering crowds. When Robespierre went to his own death at the guillotine, onlookers said the crowd cheered just as loudly as ever.

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