Wednesday

Sep. 14, 2011

Uncle

by Norbert Krapf

After his wife
of a lifetime
died of cancer

he sat alone
at night
in the farmhouse

listening to the
Grand Ole Opry
pulse on the radio

reading the daily
local line by line
front to back

& puffing his
face with popcorn
that raised the lid

off the iron pot
squatting on blue
flame on the stove.

Sometimes when winds
stopped scraping
dried catalpa leaves

in the barnyard
he would whisper
one name to

dull walls:
Elizabeth
        Elizabeth.


    *    *    *

Daughters-in-law
sent pots of soup
with the sons

who careened down
the rockroad in pickups
to milk the herd

of bawling cows.
Case tractors
wheeled by sons

& grandsons cut
O's & X's
in the mud between

granary & silo
as coon hounds dozed
beneath the walnut.

    *    *    *

When a woman
from the other
side of the county

whose husband had
died became his
late bride

& moved into
the farmhouse where
my mother had slept

as a girl squinting
through cracks
in the roof

at snowflakes
& starlight,
frowns caked

the faces of
my cousins.
There was one

name they would
not voice on
the farm they

felt was theirs:
Margaret,
        Margaret.

"Uncle" by Norbert Krapf, from Somewhere in Southern Indiana: Poems of Midwestern Origins. © Time Being Books, 1993. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this date in 1814, a lawyer named Francis Scott Key wrote his poem "Defense of Fort McHenry." The fledgling United States was two years into its second war with Great Britain. Things were going all right for the Americans early in the war, because the British were distracted by their concurrent war with France. But when Napoleon was defeated in April 1814, the British turned their full attention on their former colony. Americans were shocked and appalled when the British marched into Washington, D.C., and burned the Capitol and the White House. "Every American heart is bursting with shame and indignation at the catastrophe," one Baltimore resident said.

From Washington, the British moved on to Baltimore, intending to destroy as much of the major port city as possible. The city's harbor was defended by Fort McHenry, and the British navy began firing on it on September 13. They attacked Baltimore throughout the day, and that night they sent more than 1,500 bombs, rockets, and cannon balls across the water at Fort McHenry. Francis Scott Key, a lawyer who had been sent to negotiate the release of an American prisoner, was on a British boat behind the lines for the duration of the battle. Suddenly, in the middle of the night, the British stopped firing. From their boat, 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. The sunrise revealed that the American flag still held its place. Key scribbled down some ideas for a poem, and later that day, after his release, he wrote the poem in a room at the Indian Queen Hotel. Within days it had circulated, and was being sung to the tune of a drinking song, "To Anacreon in Heaven." It became a huge hit, but didn't become our official national anthem until 1931.

The flag in question had been commissioned in 1813 by Major George Armistead, the commander of Fort McHenry, and it was sewn by Baltimore seamstress Mary Pickersgill, assisted by her 13-year-old daughter, two teenage nieces, and an indentured servant. They constructed the 30-by-42-foot flag by sewing together strips of English wool bunting that were 12 to 18 inches wide. Each of the 15 stars was two feet wide between the points, and the stripes were two feet wide as well. They laid the flag out on the floor of a local brewery to stitch it together.

The Star-Spangled Banner remained in the Armistead family for several generations before they donated it to the Smithsonian Institution. It was in pretty bad shape by the time the Smithsonian got it; the Armisteads had snipped away several bits of it to give away as souvenirs, and Louisa Armistead (George's widow) cut out an entire star to give away. That star has never been tracked down, and that's why visitors to the Smithsonian see only 14 stars rather than 15.

On this date in 1959, the Soviet probe Luna 2 crashed into the Moon. It was the first human-made object to reach the Moon; its purpose was not only to land there, but also to determine whether or not the Moon had a magnetic field or radiation belts. (It does not.) It took 33 hours and change to reach the Sea of Serenity from its launch site, the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. When it crashed, it scattered a number of Soviet banners and emblems over the lunar surface. Premier Nikita Khrushchev presented a replica of one of these to President Eisenhower the following day.

The Soviets' long-running Luna program was intended to provide data for a future manned landing, and though it claimed a number of "firsts," the U.S.S.R. never put a man on the Moon. The Luna program was shut down in 1976.

It's the 50th birthday of British author of science fiction and fantasy, Justin Richards (1961) (books by this author). He was born in Epping, Essex, and until he was in his teens, he lived in a haunted house. He had a job working as a tech writer and software designer for IBM when some friends encouraged him to submit a proposal for a novel based on the British series Doctor Who. He did, and the publishers liked his idea, so they commissioned the first of his many Doctor Who books, Theatre of War (1994).

He's also written a crime series for kids, called The Invisible Detective, and a series of supernatural mysteries set in Victorian London, called Department of Unclassified Artefacts. He currently works as Creative Consultant for BBC Books, where he answers the editorial director's Doctor Who-related questions and helps with the hands-on editing.

Today is the birthday of Zack Hample (1977) (books by this author), a sports writer and baseball collector. He's written three books: How to Snag Major League Baseballs (1999); Watching Baseball Smarter: A Professional Fan's Guide for Beginners, Semi-Experts, and Deeply Serious Geeks (2007); and The Baseball (2011). His claim to fame is his skill at snagging baseballs from the stands at Major League ballparks. As of July 26, 2011, he had collected almost 5,300 baseballs. He got his first in 1990, when he was 12, off of a Mets reliever at Shea Stadium — where he also snagged the ball from last home run ever hit at Shea before the stadium was demolished in 2009. His father said, "When Zack got that first ball, it was like a baby shark tasting blood for the first time. It was like an epiphany."

He quickly became obsessed with "ballhawking," and when he graduated from high school, he deliberately chose to attend a small Quaker college in Greensboro, North Carolina, five hours from the nearest major league park, to get away from baseball for a while. It worked, but he became obsessed with Scrabble instead, memorizing every four-letter word in the dictionary. He's also a competitive video gamer. "Where do you draw the line between obsession and passion?" Hample said, in an interview with ESPN. "You can't be a master of anything if you're not obsessed."

He's a hero to kids everywhere, who email him asking for tips. He keeps a cheat sheet in his wallet with "Give me the ball, please" written phonetically in 34 different languages. He brings caps and jerseys for both teams to every game, and changes them based on who's up to bat — except at Yankee stadium, where wearing the opposing team's colors is a health hazard. He has scouting reports for ushers as well as players, and he knows which ones are strict and which ones look the other way. He gets 97 percent of his balls at batting practice and other non-game situations. He rigs a "ZackTrap" out of his glove, wrapping a rubber band around it, wedging a pen in the pocket, and lowering the contraption on a string to scoop up balls that have dropped behind the stands. His record is 32 balls in one game, snagged at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City.

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

 









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