Dec. 3, 2013
I liked how the starry blue lid
of that saucepan lifted and puffed,
then settled back on a thin
hotpad of steam, and the way
her kitchen filled with the warm,
wet breath of apples, as if all
the apples were talking at once,
as if they'd come cold and sour
from chores in the orchard,
and were trying to shoulder in
close to the fire. She was too busy
to put in her two cents' worth
talking to apples. Squeezing
her dentures with wrinkly lips,
she had to jingle and stack
the bright brass coins of the lids
and thoughtfully count out
the red rubber rings, then hold
each jar, to see if it was clean,
to a window that looked out
through her back yard into Iowa.
And with every third or fourth jar
she wiped steam from her glasses,
using the hem of her apron,
printed with tiny red sailboats
that dipped along with leaf-green
banners snapping, under puffs
of pale applesauce clouds
scented with cinnamon and cloves,
the only boats under sail
for at least two thousand miles.
The Lerner and Loewe musical Camelot opened on Broadway on this date in 1960. It was an adaptation of The Once and Future King, T.H. White's retelling of the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (1958). The original cast recording — featuring Richard Burton, Julie Andrews, and Robert Goulet — was a favorite of President Kennedy and his family. Not long after her husband's assassination, Jacqueline Kennedy gave an interview to T.H. White. She told him how her husband would often ask her to play the album at bedtime, to take his mind off his crippling back pain. Kennedy was particularly moved by the final number, in which Arthur knights a young boy on the eve of a great battle, and implores him to keep the legend of Camelot alive. "The song he loved most came at the very end of this record, the last side of Camelot, sad Camelot ...'Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.' [...] There'll never be another Camelot again."
Today is the birthday of Joseph Conrad (books by this author), born in Berdichev, Poland (now Ukraine) (1857). His parents had both died of tuberculosis by the time he was 12, so he went to live with his uncle in Switzerland and later joined the merchant navy, sailing all around the world and gathering experiences that he would later use in his novels and stories. The best known of these is Heart of Darkness (1899). It's the story of an English riverboat captain in the Congo who is sent to retrieve an ivory trader, Kurtz, who has been living as a demigod among the African natives. The novella has been adapted several times, beginning with Orson Welles' radio production in 1938. The most famous adaptation moved the novella's action from Africa to southeast Asia and set the story during the Vietnam War: Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 film, Apocalypse Now.
It was on this date in 1919 that the Quebec Bridge, spanning the St. Lawrence River, finally opened to traffic. It was a long time coming; the project had been discussed since 1852, and design and construction finally got underway in 1903. Plans were drawn up for the world's largest cantilever bridge, with an 1,800-foot single span that was 150 feet above the river to accommodate oceangoing ships. It was designed to carry two railway tracks and two streetcar tracks, as well as two automobile roadways. Builders broke ground on the bridge in 1904, but there was an error in the estimated weight of the finished bridge: it was off by more than 8 million pounds. Engineers proceeded anyway, unwilling to stop construction on the greatest bridge in the world.
But in 1907, when it was almost complete, the bridge collapsed, taking the lives of 75 workers. Construction resumed in 1913, and in 1916 the bridge collapsed again, this time killing 13. It finally opened to public traffic on this date in 1919, and remains the world's longest cantilever bridge.
Today is the birthday of British social reformer and philanthropist Octavia Hill, born in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire (1838). When she was 26, she established her first low-income housing project in the slums off of London's Marylebone Road. Her tenements were set up to help the poor find work and improve their material positions, but she didn't neglect the arts. Her housing estates offered music classes, public art spaces, and cultural outings. She came to see the importance of open spaces after seeing the cramped and overcrowded conditions in which the city's poor were living. She campaigned for the preservation of, as she put it, "a few acres where the hill top enables the Londoner to rise above the smoke, to feel a refreshing air for a little time and to see the sun setting in coloured glory which abounds so in the Earth God made." With that goal in mind, she co-founded Britain's National Trust for Places of Historic Interest and Natural Beauty in 1895. When she died in 1912, the National Trust had 713 members; it now has 4 million.
Octavia Hill, who said, "The need of quiet, the need of air, the need of exercise [...] the sight of sky and of things growing seem human needs common to all."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®