Sep. 8, 2013

At the Toll Booth

by Marilyn Donnelly

They are serving Toll House cookies
at the toll booth on the Maine Turnpike.
Someone peeps out through pleated drapes
of a swollen ebony hearse
to see if there is some mistake.
But no, attendants are moving
deftly among clogged cars
balancing silver trays heaped high
with succulent cookies
still warm with chocolate oozing
over the fluted rims.
Small dogs gather to catch the excess
as cars continue to pile up
even in the exact change lane
yet no one seems to mind the delay,
The Toll House cookies are golden and good.
The withered face peering out
from the silent hearse
fills with delicate memories
of an uncomplicated childhood.

"At the Toll Booth" by Marilyn Donnelly, from Coda. © Autumn House Press, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Ann Beattie (books by this author), born in Washington, D.C. (1947). It was in grad school that she showed some short stories she'd been writing to one of her professors, the writer John O'Hara, and he started sending her stories out for publication. After a few acceptances, he suggested she try submitting to The New Yorker. She got an encouraging rejection letter, so she kept submitting. It took her 22 tries before The New Yorker took one of her stories, but it wasn't so bad because it had taken her only a few hours to write each of those 22 stories.

She published both her first collection, Distortions, and her first novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter, in 1976. Her most recent collection, The New Yorker Stories, came out in 2011.

Ann Beattie said, "People forget years and remember moments."

It's the birthday of novelist Grace Metalious (books by this author), born in Manchester, New Hampshire (1924). She wrote the scandalous novel Peyton Place (1956) about a small New England town that is filled with sex, rape, murder, and suicide.

Metalious was a stay-at-home mother of three children, and she wrote the novel to help her husband pay the bills. She got the idea for the book in the middle of the night and wrote it in 10 weeks. It was the first work of fiction she ever published. She based part of the book on a town secret about a woman who murdered her father, and when the book became a best-seller, the locals in her town were horrified. It was banned in libraries across the country, and the public library in her hometown didn't have a copy until the 1990s.

After her death, the book was made into a TV series that became the first ever long-running primetime soap opera, and all primetime serials since then have been based on its example.

It was on this day in 1920 that the first transcontinental U.S. airmail service began, from New York to San Francisco.

The Wright brothers made their first flight in 1903, but it took a while for them to convince the U.S. government that airplanes were a technology worth pursuing. The brothers approached the government three separate times in 1905 hoping to interest them as a customer, but to no avail. The military finally agreed to purchase a plane from the Wrights in 1908, but it crashed during flight trials, killing the military observer and injuring Orville Wright. A year later, the flight trials resumed, and this time the government actually purchased the plane.

Over the next couple of years, the public became more interested in aviation and its potential beyond military use. In 1911, the Post Office Department expressed interest in the new technology. That fall, an aviator named Earle Ovington was sworn in as the first U.S. airmail pilot moments before taking off in his monoplane from Garden City on Long Island. He had a bag stuffed full of letters and postcards. He flew three miles to Mineola — also on Long Island — and when he saw the signal from the postmaster, he dropped the bag of mail from the airplane. The bag exploded when it hit the ground, scattering mail everywhere.

For several years, the Post Office Department sponsored more experimental flights across the country, mostly at county fairs or aviation events. The flights were successful, and the Post Office asked Congress for funding to try airmail service. They finally agreed, and the first airmail flight was in 1918, with service from New York to Washington, D.C. Flights went smoothly, but the public response was lukewarm — people didn't want to pay the higher airmail postage just for a slightly shorter trip. Airmail pilots ended up carrying a lot of letters paid with normal postage, just to fill their bags.

The Post Office decided that fast transcontinental service would be a major attraction to consumers, and built airfields that went straight west from New York. There were 15 airfields in all, beginning with New York and including Cleveland, Chicago, Omaha, Cheyenne, Salt Lake City, Reno, and finally San Francisco. The biggest challenge was crossing the Rocky Mountains in lightweight planes. On this day in 1920, the first service went across the entire country. The experimental flight carried about 100 letters, and landed in East Oakland.

On these early airmail planes, pilots navigated by dead reckoning because their planes weren't equipped with radios or any sort of navigational tools. One of the young pilots flying the Chicago to St. Louis route was Charles Lindbergh. Twice he encountered bad weather and had to bail out of the airplane.

It still took a while for airmail to catch on. When the first transcontinental service began, pilots flew only during the day, and then put the mail onto trains for the night. The journey from New York to San Francisco was only 22 hours faster by airmail than regular mail. In 1921, mail was flown overnight for the first time, and suddenly mail could reach from coast to coast two to three days faster. The government was impressed and awarded the Post Office Department more than $1 million for the expansion of airmail. The success of these cross-country flights paved the way for commercial airlines, which followed many of the routes designed for airmail pilots.

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