Sep. 14, 2010

My Father's Wallet

by Debra Marquart

Small curve of leather that rode
on his backside in the pickup
to auctions every Tuesday,

that stretched and marked
the right pocket of his Levis,
that padded the wood chairs

of the café where he gossiped
with other farmers about
grain yields, corn futures,

that rests now in the cupboard
above the sewing machine
like an upturned turtle shell

abandoned among spools
of thread, jars of buttons,
where Mother put it after

she cleared away his fifteen
trim suits, his thirty shirts,
his pajamas and robe, his neat

row of shoes. His pickup
sits undriven in the left bay
of the garage. Only the wallet

remains, packed, as he left it,
with plastic cards, photo IDs,
gold membership numbers,

the unspent fifty dollars
and the unused lines of credit
we all hope will someday

save us. At the White Knights
Casino we plug the slots
for him, for the big lotto payoff,

waiting for his always earthly
luck to rub off on us.
But everything comes up lemons

oranges, diamonds, flags,
and rubies in the wrong
combinations—the mixed bag

of fruits and wild cards
that never fell in place the way
we'd always hoped or expected.

"My Father's Wallet" by Debra Marquart, from From Sweetness. © Pearl Editions, 2002. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist Hamlin Garland, (books by this author) born on a farm near West Salem, Wisconsin (1860). He published his first book of short stories, Main Traveled Roads (1891), and it made him famous. He was one of the most respected novelists of his generation, with his 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 the theater critic and translator Eric Bentley, (books by this author)born in Bolton, England (1916). In 1942, the young Bentley was fresh out of his Ph.D. program at Yale, and he went to UCLA to teach freshman English for a year. And there he met the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, who had recently immigrated to the United States after fleeing Nazi Germany and was unknown in this country. The two of them became close, and it was Bentley who translated a lot of Brecht's work into English and helped establish his career in America.

Bentley also wrote Bentley on Brecht (1998), a combination of literary criticism and personal reflections and anecdotes about his colleague and friend, which has been published in several editions throughout the years. In it, he wrote: "Brecht would always shout and scream when things went wrong in the theater. His paranoia was as outrageous as that of anyone I've ever met [...] Brecht found hostility and sabotage everywhere [...]

It was on this day in 1814 that Francis Scott Key wrote the poem that became "The Star-Spangled Banner."

The British had invaded and captured Washington on August 24th. After successfully destroying the White House, the Capitol building, and a lot of Washington, the British moved on to Baltimore, and had no interest in occupying it — they just hoped to destroy as much as possible, as a symbolic victory.

The British made their headquarters in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, and took over the plantation of the town doctor, Dr. William Beanes, who was elderly and well-liked. A young lawyer, Francis Scott Key, was incensed when he heard that Beanes had been captured and was being held on a ship, so he set off to rescue him.

Key was accompanied by John S. Skinner, an agent for prisoner release whom President Madison had sent along. The British commander, General Robert Ross, finally agreed to release Beanes after the Americans showed them some letters written by wounded British prisoners saying that Dr. Beanes was taking good care of them. But he wouldn't let the three men leave until after the attack on Baltimore. They had to get on a sloop behind the British fleet and wait to see what would happen.

At Fort McHenry in Baltimore, there was a huge flag, 30 feet by 42 feet, easily visible from the British ships. Each of the 15 stars measured two feet between the points, and the stripes were two feet wide. A Baltimore seamstress and her 13-year-old daughter had sewn the flag by spreading it all out on the malthouse floor of a local brewery.

The British attacked Baltimore throughout the day on September 13th, and that night they sent more than 1,500 bombs, rockets, and cannon balls across the water at Fort McHenry. But Baltimore had been preparing for war for the past year, and it was well defended. Suddenly, the British stopped firing. From their boat, Francis Scott Key and the other men had no idea whether the British had succeeded or given up and retreated, and they could no longer see the harbor now that the sky was dark. So they had to wait all night, until the sky was light enough to see which flag was flying over the fort. And of course, the next morning the American flag was there.

Francis Scott Key scribbled down some ideas for a poem on the back of a letter that he was carrying. He was released later that day, and the next day, September 14th, he finished writing "Defense of Fort M'Henry," which would later become the lyrics to "The Star-Spangled Banner," in a room at the Indian Queen Hotel.

Within five days, the poem was printed and circulated all over Baltimore with the directions that it should be sung to the tune of an English song, "To Anacreon in Heaven." No one is sure exactly who figured out that the lyrics fit the tune of this popular drinking song. A well-known actor, Ferdinand Durang, stood on a chair and belted it out to an appreciative crowd at Captain McCauley's tavern and became the first person to publicly sing what is now the national anthem of the United States.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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