Mar. 23, 2011
Reaching back from the front seat while Mom drove,
my dad showed us the series of two lane roads we would travel
from our home up north in Minneapolis,
to Judge and Kiki's house
down south in Jefferson City.
He challenged us to add up the miles
between the pinhead markers on the map
and find the exact spot
where our red station wagon was right at that moment,
loaded with the eight of us, our dog, our food, our suitcases.
I loved the names of the towns we rolled through
Owatonna, Oskaloosa, Ottumwa
and I enjoyed the map games,
but folding that map
utterly mystified me.
I would try every which way before giving up and
handing a bulky square, creased down the middle, up to the front seat
where my father would spread it out in the air in front of him,
deftly pop in and out the folds
until the map collapsed into his hands
of its own accord.
Now forty years later,
he and I wait for my mom to get out of surgery,
and we pore over a map
to find a better way home,
and I trace for him the route I have chosen
from 494 East to 35W North to 11th street
and he studies this for a long time
before he moves his index finger along the thick green line
that bisects Minneapolis and says,
"Now, is this what you call north?"
"Exactly," I say.
Satisfied, he creases the map down the middle
and hands it to me.
I don't re-fold it.
Now 89 years old,
he's been married since he was 30,
practiced pediatrics until he was 80,
raised six daughters,
escaped from the Nazis in his youth
and survived a stroke in his old age.
That map, just as it is,
is accomplishment enough.
It was on this day in 1775 that Patrick Henry gave a famous speech and probably delivered the line: "Give me liberty or give me death!"
Henry spoke at the Second Virginia Convention, a meeting of American colonial leaders. The convention was held at St. John's Church in Richmond, Virginia. There were 120 delegates, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry. Henry was representing Hanover County, Virginia, where he had been born 39 years earlier. The four-day meeting turned into a fierce debate about whether or not to raise a militia and arm Virginia in the fight against the British.
Henry was an attorney with a knack for turning a phrase and a commitment to American independence. Twelve years earlier, he had stood up in court and called King George a tyrant, and he had been fighting against English laws and rule in the courts ever since.
There was a problem with Henry's speeches. They were wonderful and charismatic and everyone was entranced by them, but afterward, no one could remember what he had said. Thomas Jefferson said of Henry: "His eloquence was peculiar, if indeed it should be called eloquence; for it was impressive and sublime, beyond what can be imagined. Although it was difficult when he had spoken to tell what he had said, yet, while he was speaking, it always seemed directly to the point. When he had spoken in opposition to my opinion, had produced a great effect, and I myself had been highly delighted and moved, I have asked myself when he ceased: 'What the devil has he said?' I could never answer the inquiry."
So although Henry's speech at the Second Virginia Convention is so famous, no one is sure what he said. It wasn't written down until 1816, by Henry's biographer, William Wirt. Wirt talked to people who had been present at the speech and had them reconstruct it, but they were relying on their memories, not even notes.
According to one of Wirt's sources, in what has become the accepted text of Henry's speech, he ended with these famous words: "It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace — but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!"
It's the birthday of the writer Josef Čapek, (books by this author) born in Hronov in what is now the Czech Republic, in 1887. His brother Karel was the famous writer, but Josef will go down in history as the man who invented the word robot. Karel Čapek wrote a play called R.U.R., or Rossum's Universal Robots (1921), a dystopia about mass-produced human substitutes who are employed as cheap labor. But Karel Čapek couldn't think of a good word for his artificial laborers — he was going to go with laboři but decided that was too obvious. Josef suggested roboti, and the name stuck. Josef was arrested and sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, from which he wrote Poems from a Concentration Camp (1946). He died there in 1945.
It's the birthday of writer Louis Adamic, (books by this author) born in Blato in what is now Slovenia (1899). He came from a family of farmers. In his autobiography, Laughing in the Jungle (1932), he wrote: "One day — I was then a little over 10 — I said to Mother: 'Someday I am going to America.' Mother looked at me a long moment. She was then a healthy young peasant woman, not yet 30, rather tall, with a full bust and large, wide hips; long arms and big capable hands; a broad, sun-browned, wind-creased Slavic face; large, wide-spaced hazel eyes, mild and luminous with simple mirth; and wavy hair which stuck in little gold-bleached wisps from under her colored kerchief, tied below her chin. [...] Hers was the healthy, natural, visceral, body-shaking laughter of Slovenian peasants in Carniola, especially of peasant women — variable laughter; usually mirthful and humorous, clear and outright, but sometimes, too, mirthless and unhumorous, pain-born, and pain-transcending. 'I am going to America," I said again, as Mother continued to look at me in silence. I imagine she thought that I was a strange boy. [...] With a little catch in her voice, Mother said: 'To America? But when are you going?' 'I don't know,' I said. 'When I grow up, I guess. I am already 10.' I had not thought of it in detail, but had merely decided to go some day."
His mother wanted him to become a priest, not take off for America. But he was a poor student, and as a teenager he was expelled from school for causing trouble with his support of the Yugoslav nationalist movement. So at age 14, he decided that he was grown up enough, and he immigrated to the United States.
Throughout his career, he moved all over the country, fought in World War I, wrote for newspapers, and worked manual jobs. He wrote about travel, the labor movement, immigrant life in America, and Eastern European politics in books like The Native's Return (1934), Cradle of Life (1936), and Two-Way Passage (1941).
Louis Adamic said, "My grandfather always said that living is like licking honey off a thorn."
From the archives:
On this day in 1913, California novelist Jack London (books by this author) wrote to six writers, including H.G. Wells (books by this author) and George Bernard Shaw (books by this author), asking how much they were paid for their writing. London, who grew up in extreme poverty, always claimed that his chief motive for writing was money. He told his colleagues, "I have published 33 books, as well as an ocean of magazine stuff, and yet I have never heard the rates that other writers receive." One of the writers London wrote to was Winston Churchill — the American novelist, not the British Prime Minister. Churchill replied to London with useful information. London was so appreciative that he wrote Churchill a thank-you letter and invited him to stay at his house in Sonoma County, California. He wrote: "It is as a born Californian that I dare to say that we will show you here a different California from any that you have seen so far. Please always remember, also, that we are only camping out; but that nevertheless this is a dandy place for a man to loaf in and to work in."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®