Dec. 28, 2013

Flying Over West Texas at Christmas

by Billy Collins

Oh, little town far below
with a ruler line of a road running through you,
you anonymous cluster of houses and barns,
miniaturized by this altitude
in a land as parched as Bethlehem
might have been somewhere around the year zero—

a beautiful song should be written about you
which choirs could sing in their lofts
and carolers standing in a semicircle
could carol in front of houses topped with snow.

For surely some admirable person was born
within the waffle-iron grid of your streets,
who then went on to perform some small miracles,
placing a hand on the head of a child
or shaking a cigarette out of the pack for a stranger.

But maybe it is best not to compose a hymn
or chisel into tablets the code of his behavior
or convene a tribunal of men in robes to explain his words.

Let us not press the gold leaf of his name
onto a page of vellum or hang his image from a nail.
Better to fly over this little town with nothing
but the hope that someone visits his grave

once a year, pushing open the low iron gate
then making her way toward him
through the rows of the others
before bending to prop up some flowers before the stone.

"Flying Over West Texas at Christmas" by Billy Collins from Aimless Love. © Random House, 2013. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1973 that the Endangered Species Act was signed into law by President Nixon. There had been wildlife conservation laws in place for decades. In the late 19th century, the passenger pigeon was almost gone, the whooping crane population had plummeted, and many other species were being hunted into extinction — for food, for fashionable clothing, and sometimes just for fun. In 1900, the Lacey Act was passed, regulating the sale of illegally captured or hunted wildlife across state lines. But the Lacey Act could only do so much; the passenger pigeon went extinct, and by 1941, there were only about 16 whooping cranes left in the wild. The whooping crane became the inspiration for the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966, which set aside money to buy habitat for endangered species. Amendments made the laws stricter for using products that came from endangered species. In 1970, the Department of the Interior proposed adding the sperm whale to its list of endangered species, and the Pentagon and Commerce Department protested because the Navy used sperm whale oil in its submarines. It was clear that more comprehensive legislation was necessary.

In 1972, Nixon outlined his environmental agenda to Congress. He said: "This is the environmental awakening. It marks a new sensitivity of the American spirit and a new maturity of American public life. It is working a revolution in values, as commitment to responsible partnership with nature replaces cavalier assumptions that we can play God with our surroundings and survive." He specifically asked for a new Endangered Species Act that would provide early identification and protection of threatened species, and treat hunting or capturing endangered species as a federal offense. In 1973, the House and Senate versions were combined. The Senate passed the bill unanimously, and the House by a vote of 355 to 4.

Biologist Daniel H. Janzen said: "For what DNA literacy if we have extinguished the books?"

It was on this day in 1945 that Congress officially recognized the Pledge of Allegiance. It was written in 1892 by a minister and Socialist named Francis Bellamy, who was eventually forced out of his position because he preached too many sermons about Jesus and socialism. Bellamy wrote the Pledge for Youth's Companion magazine,which had launched a program offering kids a flag for their school in return for every 100 magazine subscriptions they sold. Youth's Companion decided to step it up a notch and partner with the Columbian Exposition in Chicago (the World's Fair) to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus's landing in America. They wanted schools nationwide to participate in honoring the flag. One hot August evening, the magazine's employees were in the offices planning for the celebration, and the editor asked Bellamy to write something for students to recite. Bellamy agreed to hole himself up in his office for an hour and see what he could do. He said later: "Here arose the temptation of that historic slogan of the French Revolution which meant so much to Jefferson and his friends, 'Liberty, equality, fraternity.' No; that would be too fanciful, too many thousands of years off in realization. But we as a nation do stand square on the doctrine of liberty and justice for all. That's all any one nation can handle. [...] The words seemed to take care of themselves — they were the old words of American history and evolution, with the ear instinctively helping in their choice. They had been condensed to 23. When they were said aloud, they seemed to have a carrying resonance together with ease of speech." His pledge was published in early September, and it read simply: "I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." On Columbus Day, October 12th, it was recited in public schools all over the country.

In 1923, the National Flag Conference changed the words from "my Flag" to "the Flag of the United States of America," so that immigrants wouldn't be confused about which flag they were honoring. In 1942, Congress first acknowledged the Pledge as part of legislation codifying flag-related rituals, but it wasn't until this day in 1945 that they officially recognized it and it was sanctioned by Congress. The words "under God" were added in 1954 to make sure it didn't sound like something that would be recited by Communists.

It was on this day in 1895 that Auguste and Louis Lumière opened the first movie theater at the Grand Café in Paris. Other inventors, including Thomas Edison, were working on various moving picture devices at the time. But most of those other devices could only be viewed by one person at a time. The Lumières were the first to project moving pictures on a screen, so that they could be viewed by a large audience.

It's the birthday of the man who said: "Lead us not into temptation. Just tell us where it is; we'll find it." That's writer and comedian Sam Levenson (books by this author), born in New York City (1911). He grew up in a Jewish section of Brooklyn and later said, "It was on my fifth birthday that Papa put his hand on my shoulder and said, 'Remember, my son, if you ever need a helping hand, you'll find one at the end of your arm.'"

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




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