Sep. 14, 2008
The green shell of his backpack makes him lean
into wave after wave of responsibility,
and he swings his stiff arms and cupped hands,
paddling ahead. He has extended his neck
to its full length, and his chin, hard as a beak,
breaks the surf. He's got his baseball cap on
backward as up he crawls, out of the froth
of a hangover and onto the sand of the future,
and lumbers, heavy with hope, into the library.
It was on this day in 1812 that Napoleon's army invaded the city of Moscow. Napoleon had hoped to conquer all of Europe, and he had almost succeeded. He had invaded Russia in June of 1812, but the Russian forces kept retreating, leading his army farther and farther into the country.
The Russians practiced a scorched-earth policy of retreat, burning all the farmland so that the French army wouldn't have any food to draw on. The troops were exhausted and hungry by the time they reached Moscow on this day, in 1812. As they approached, they found the gates standing open and the streets deserted. Then they noticed that all over the city, small fires had started. The Russians had set fire to their own city. By that night, the fires were out of control.
Napoleon watched the burning of the city from inside the Kremlin. He finally fled when a fire broke out inside the Kremlin itself, and he barely escaped the city alive. He began his retreat across the snow-covered plains on October 19. It was one of the great disasters of military history. Thousands died of starvation and hypothermia. Of the nearly 500,000 men who had set out in June, fewer than 20,000 ragged, freezing, and starving men staggered back across the Russian frontier in December.
It was on this day in 1901 that the then Vice President Theodore Roosevelt learned he had become the 26th president of the United States, after the death by assassination of President William McKinley.
On September 6, 1901, less than a year into Roosevelt's role as vice president, President McKinley was visiting the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, when an anarchist walked up to him and shot him in the stomach.
Roosevelt rushed to the president's side, but by the time he got there McKinley seemed to be doing fine. He was talking normally and even making jokes, and everyone assumed that he would soon be back on his feet.
Roosevelt decided that he wasn't needed, so he went ahead with his vacation plans for that summer: a camping trip in the Adirondacks. He set out to climb Mount Marcy, the tallest mountain in New York. He had reached the peak and was eating lunch when a telegram delivery man stumbled up the mountain to deliver the news that McKinley's condition had worsened over night. A second telegram arrived late that night saying that Roosevelt should get to Buffalo as soon as possible. His wife begged him to wait until morning, since the roads were still wet and muddy from the rain, but Roosevelt didn't want to wait.
He and a young man hitched some horses to a primitive wagon called a "buckboard" and set off down the mountain just after midnight on this day in 1901. The ride down the mountain took more than five hours. When Roosevelt reached the train station, just after dawn, his secretary met him and gave him the latest telegram from Buffalo. It said, "The president died at two-fifteen this morning." At the age of 42, Theodore Roosevelt had become the youngest president in United States history.
It's the birthday of novelist Hamlin Garland, (books by this author) born in West Salem, Wisconsin (1860). His parents were pioneers who had moved west to stake out some land for themselves. The family went through droughts and floods and plagues of locusts, and had to move around more than once. Garland thought he would support himself as a farmer in South Dakota, but after three of the harshest winters of his life, he decided to give up the farm and move east.
He wound up in Boston where he began to write for the newspapers, and he eventually decided that he wanted to write fiction about the life of pioneers that he had left behind. At that time, almost no one had written authentically about pioneer life. People in the East believed that farmers lived in the beautiful countryside and that their lives were simple and noble. Hamlin Garland said, "There is no gilding of setting sun or glamour of poetry to light up the ferocious and endless toil of the farmer's [life]."
In 1891, he published his first collection of stories, Main-Travelled Roads, and within a few years he was famous. He went on to become one of the most respected novelists of his generation, best known for his autobiographical trilogy, A Son of the Middle Border (1917), A Daughter of the Middle Border (1921), and Back-Trailers from the Middle Border (1928).
It's the birthday of essayist Barbara Harrison, (books by this author) born Barbara Grizzuti in Brooklyn, New York (1934). She grew up with an abusive father, but when she was nine years old, she and her mother became Jehovah's Witnesses, and she spent the rest of her childhood evangelizing. More than 20 years later, she came out with Visions of Glory: A History and a Memory of Jehovah's Witnesses.
It's the birthday of philosopher and educator Allan Bloom, (books by this author) born in Indianapolis, Indiana (1930). He's best known as the author of The Closing of the American Mind (1987), about what he believed was the decline of higher education in the United States.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®