Nov. 2, 2007

Are We There Yet

by R. Virgil Ellis

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Poem: "Are We There Yet" by R. Virgil Ellis, from Bone Flute and Other Poems. © Parallel Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission.

Are We There Yet

you'd say, tired of our prompting
to see the world as you should:
train-thunder as we go under a trestle,
smiling face painted on a barn.
You'd even get bored looking for signs
that had the rare q, x, or z.
Are we there yet?
So we gave up telling you the miles
and just said, we're closer, getting closer,
whenever you asked, so
you made it into a chant:
closer, closer, closer,
until, turning onto our road,
we joined in, and then
we all rocked in our seats,
making the old car bounce and sway,
closer, closer, closer.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the frontiersman Daniel Boone, born near Reading, Pennsylvania (1734), who led the effort to blaze the trail from eastern Virginia into Kentucky Territory that became the main route west for many early settlers. Boone became so famous as a pioneer hero that the poet Lord Byron included him as a character in his epic poem "Don Juan," in 1823. Daniel Boone, who said, "I have never been lost, but I will admit to being confused for several weeks."

It's the birthday of Marie Antoinette, born in Vienna (1755), whose marriage to the son of King Louis XV was arranged to create an alliance between France and Austria. She was just 14 years old in 1770 when she was welcomed to France by cheering crowds, church bells, and fireworks. She was beautiful, blond, a good dancer, played the harp and the clavichord, and could speak French, German, Italian, and Latin. The people loved her at first. But in just two decades she had become one of the most hated women in France.

By the 1780s, the country was suffering under a terrible debt, high taxes, and food shortages, and people blamed the queen's extravagant taste in clothes and jewelry, even though the real problem was France's support of the American colonies in the war against England. A fabricated story circulated that she heard about peasants starving without bread to eat, and she replied, "Let them eat cake." Even though it wasn't true, the story has stuck to her ever since.

By 1786, Marie Antoinette couldn't even visit the Notre Dame because the police feared she would spark a riot. In the years after the revolution in 1789, she and her husband were arrested and put on trial. Her husband was executed on January 21, 1793, and Marie Antoinette went to the guillotine on October 15 of that same year. She was 37 years old, but her hair had already turned white, and people there that day said she looked about twice her actual age. After her death, she was buried in a common peasant's grave.

It was on this day in 1948 that Harry S. Truman managed one of the great election upsets in American history, beating the governor of New York, Thomas E. Dewey, for the presidency. Truman had been doing badly in the polls in part because he'd come into office after Franklin Roosevelt's sudden death on April 12, 1945, and he'd never really lived up to Roosevelt's reputation. Truman wasn't well known, and people painted him as a country bumpkin from Missouri, with no college degree. Republicans took control of the Congress in the mid-term elections in 1946, and factions of the Democratic Party were splitting off into the Progressive Party and the Dixiecrats. Two months before the election, the pollster Elmo Roper announced that he was going to stop surveying voters, because Truman was so far behind.

But Truman didn't give up. He set out on his Whistle Stop Tour, with a private railroad car outfitted with a sound system so that he could pull into small towns and give speeches directly from the train. That fall of 1948, he traveled 21,928 miles, just short of the distance around the world, and he delivered more than 300 speeches, including the first speech ever delivered by an American president to a black audience in Harlem.

On Election Day, he went to bed early, after a ham sandwich and a glass of milk. When he woke up around midnight and turned on the radio, they were reporting that he was ahead in the popular vote by more than 1 million, but the announcer said that he was still undoubtedly beaten. It turned out that he had won 303 electoral votes to Dewey's 189. Not a single news organization in the country had predicted the election correctly. Two days after the election, Truman was making an appearance in St. Louis and somebody handed him a copy of the Chicago Tribune with the headline, "DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN." He held the paper over his head, and that became the source of the famous photograph. An unsigned editorial in the conservative New York Sun said of Truman's upset victory, "You just have to take off your hat to a beaten man who refuses to stay licked."

It's the birthday of a man who wrote a novel called Dewey Defeats Truman (1997), the novelist Thomas Mallon, born in Glen Cove, New York (1951). He's the author of many historical novels, including Aurora 7 (1997), Bandbox (2004), and Fellow Travelers (2007). He said, "The main thing that has led me to write historical fiction is that it is such a relief from the self. It is like getting out of the house."

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