Apr. 11, 2003

War Surplus

by Louis Jenkins

(RealAudio) | How to listen

"War Surplus," by Louis Jenkins.

War Surplus

Aisle after aisle of canvas and khaki, helmets and mess kits, duffle bags, pea
coats, gas masks… Somewhere there is a whole field of abandoned aircraft,
all kinds, P-38's, B-25's… All you have to do is wait until dark, climb over
the fence, pull the blocks from the wheels, climb in, start the engines and
taxi out to the strip. It's easy. You can fly without ever having had a lesson.

A beautiful woman dressed in black sits on a bench near a grave. A tall man
in dress uniform stands beside her and puts his hand on her shoulder. She
says, "I come here often, it is so peaceful." He says, "Before John died, he
asked me to look after you." They embrace. Behind them are many neat
rows of white crosses extending over a green hill where the flag is flying

The engines make a deep drone; a comforting sound, and the light from the
instrument panel tells you everything is stable and right. Below are silver-
tufted clouds and tiny enemy towns, lovely toy towns, all lighted by the
bomber's moon.


Literary Notes:

On this day in 1803 French Foreign Minister Talleyrand offered to sell all of Louisiana Territory to the United States. He said, "The sale [of Louisiana] assures forever the power of the United States, and I have given England a rival who, sooner or later, will humble her pride."

On this day in 1945 the U.S. army liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar, Germany, a camp that was judged second only to Auschwitz in the horrors it imposed on its prisoners. It had been established in 1937, and about 56,000 prisoners died there. It was the first camp to be liberated at the end of World War II. As American forces closed in on Buchenwald, the Gestapo telephoned the camp administration to announce that it was going to blow up the camp and destroy any evidence of its existence -- including its inmates. The camp administrators had already fled in fear of the Allies and a prisoner answered the phone, pretending to be a camp official. He persuaded headquarters that explosives would not be needed because the camp had already been destroyed. Among those saved by the Americans was Elie Wiesel, who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.

It's the birthday of social scientist and humorist Leo Rosten, born in Lodz, Poland (1908). His family immigrated to Chicago when he was three years old. Rosten read all the books that his parents bought from the door-to-door book salesmen who walked the streets of immigrant neighborhoods. In his spare time, he helped with his father's homework for a night school English class. He also began to publish humorous sketches and stories in the New Yorker under the pseudonym Leonard Q. Ross so that his professors and the research council wouldn't think he was neglecting his academic duties. When he finally dropped the pseudonym his fellow academics were delighted with the revelation of his other identity. The New Yorker was also relieved that he was not one of their own staff writing under an false name to supplement his income. His first book of humorous writing was The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N (1937) about an eager pupil of the American Night Preparatory School For Adults. Hyman Kaplan is an immigrant who strives to learn English, which he calls "Inklish," but he only succeeds in mangling it beyond recognition. The book was a huge success, and in 1939, Rosten went to Hollywood to work as a screenwriter. But he found that he was more interested in the sociology of the motion picture industry than in the writing of screenplays, so he wrote a book about it called Hollywood: The Movie Colony, The Moviemakers (1941). In 1968 Rosten published Joys of Yiddish, a humorous study of the inter-relationship between Yiddish and English, and it was a huge success. He lists 29 meanings for the word "oy." He wrote, "Oy is not a word; it is a vocabulary. It is a lament, a protest, a cry of dismay, a reflex of delight. But however sighed, cried, howled, or moaned, Oy! is the most expressive and ubiquitous exclamation in Yiddish."

On this day in 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby was first published. Fitzgerald was twenty-eight years old. When he sent the first draft of Gatsby to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, Fitzgerald wrote, "I think my novel is about the best American novel ever written." Perkins agreed, though he suggested a few changes, including changing the title, which was originally "Trimalchio in West Egg." Some critics gave the novel good reviews, but it was Fitzgerald's first commercial failure, and most copies of the second printing were still in the Scribner's warehouse when Fitzgerald died.

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