Mar. 10, 2002

Grandfather's Cars

by Robert Phillips

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Poem: "Grandfather's Cars," by Robert Phillips from Spinach Days (The Johns Hopkins University Press).

Grandfather's Cars

Every two years he traded them in ("As soon
as the ashtrays get full," he said with good humor);
always a sedate four-door sedan, always a Buick,
always dark as the inside of a tomb.

Then one spring Grandfather took off to trade,
returned, parked proudly in the driveway.
"Shave-and-a-haircut, two bits!" blared the horn.
Grandmother emerged from the kitchen into day-

light, couldn't believe her eyes. Grandfather sat
behind the wheel of a tomato-red Lincoln
convertible, the top down. "Shave-and-a-haircut,
two bits!" "Roscoe, whatever are you thinking?"

she cried. Back into the kitchen she flew.
No matter how many times he leaned on that horn,
she wouldn't return. So he went inside,
found her decapitating strawberries with scorn.

"Katie, what's wrong with that automobile?
All my life I've wanted something sporty."
He stood there wearing his Montgomery Ward
brown suit and saddle shoes. His face was warty.

She wiped her hands along her apron,
said words that cut like a band saw:
"What ails you? They'll think you've turned fool!
All our friends are dying like flies-all!

You can't drive that thing in a funeral procession."
He knew she was right. He gave her one baleful
look, left, and returned in possession
of a four-door Dodge, black, practical as nails.

Grandfather hated that car until the day he died.

It's the birthday of playwright and screenwriter David Rabe, born in Dubuque, Iowa (1940), whose play-writing career began after his return from duty in the Vietnam War. He wrote his first two plays about the war. In 1971, his first play, Pavlo Hummel, was produced by Joseph Papp, the director of the New York Shakespeare Festival's Public Theater. Two of his most well known plays are In the Boom Boom Room (1973), about a Philadelphia stripper, and Hurlyburly (1984), about drinking, drug abuse, and loveless sex in Hollywood.

It's the birthday of jazz cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, born in Davenport, Iowa (1903). He never learned to read music well, but he had an amazing ear even as a child. By the age of three he could play the piano, and at fourteen began to play the cornet. He parents disapproved of his musical leanings, and sent him to a military school outside of Chicago. The plan backfired, however, as Beiderbecke skipped school most of the time, and sat in with the Chicago jazz bands of the time. He was eventually expelled from school, and in 1923, joined the Chicago-based band, The Wolverines. He made several recordings with them in 1924. He became a soloist with Paul Whiteman's Orchestra. He had a unique style of playing about which guitarist Eddie Condon once said, "Bix's horn sounded like a girl saying yes." His musical success, however, was overshadowed by his heavy drinking. In 1929 the problem became so bad that Beiderbecke was forced to leave the orchestra and return home to Davenport. He died in 1931 at the age of twenty-eight. Beiderbecke was the inspiration for the popular novel of the 1930s written by Dorothy Baker, Young Man with a Horn.

It's the birthday of philosopher, critic, linguist and writer Friedrich von Schlegel, born in Dresden, Germany (1772). His real influence began when he and his brother co-founded the magazine Athenauem. In it, Schlegel put forth his ideas about Romanticism; he was the first to use the term in a literary context.

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