Oct. 12, 2003

[My brother's in Wyoming . . .]

by Gary Young

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Poem: "[My brother's in Wyoming ...]," by Gary Young, from No Other Life (Heyday Books).

[My brother's in Wyoming . . .]

My brother's in Wyoming, and I've had that dream again. We're fishing. The trout rise, take our bait, and keep rising. In love once with a woman, and with my own capacity for pain, I fell in with some cowboys, and broke my neck riding bulls in a little rodeo. That night, drunk in the bunkhouse, not knowing how badly I'd been hurt, I thought it can't get worse than this, but I was wrong. That was twenty years ago. Thunder rolls down South Fork Canyon. The Milky Way is a great river overhead. My brother is in Wyoming. I miss him more than ever when he's there.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Oktoberfest has its origins in a wedding that happened on this day in 1810. The Bavarian Crown Prince Louis, later King Louis I of Bavaria, married Princess Therese of Saxonia. The royal couple celebrated on the fields in front of the city gates with a horse race, and they invited the citizens of Munich to attend. All across Bavaria there were similar festivities, and everyone enjoyed the party so much that the following year they decided to do it again. Eventually it became a tradition. The Oktoberfest in Munich is now the largest festival in the world. Every year, nearly six million people attend, and they drink more than ten million pints of beer.

It's the day that the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus reached the New World. On this day in 1492, one of the sailors on the Pinta sighted land, an island in the Bahamas, after ten weeks of sailing from Palos, Spain, with the Santa María , the Pinta , and the Niña . Columbus thought he had reached East Asia. When he sighted Cuba he thought it was China, and when the expedition landed on Hispaniola, he thought it might be Japan. Legend has it that only Columbus believed the earth was round, but that's not true; most educated Europeans at the time knew the earth wasn't flat. However, the Ottoman Empire had cut off land and sea routes to the islands of Asia. Columbus became obsessed with finding a western sea route, but he miscalculated the world's size, and he didn't know the Pacific Ocean existed. He called his plan the "Enterprise of the Indies." He pitched it first to King John II of Portugal, who rejected it, and then to the Spanish King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. They also turned him down, twice, before they conquered the Moorish kingdom of Granada in January 1492 and had some treasure to spare. Columbus led a total of four expeditions to the New World during his lifetime, and over the next century his discovery made Spain the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth. Still, he died in 1506 without accomplishing his original goal of finding a western trading route to Asia. Two of the things that the people of the New World introduced to the Europeans were hammocks and chocolate, both of which might come in handy tomorrow when Americans relax to celebrate Columbus Day.

It's the birthday of author and psychologist Robert Coles , born in Boston, Massachusetts (1929). He's the author of over 60 books. As an undergraduate at Harvard he wrote poems and stories. He wrote an essay on William Carlos Williams and he sent Williams a copy. Williams, who was a doctor as well as a poet, told him it wasn't bad—for a Harvard student. He suggested Coles go into medicine, which Coles did, abandoning his literary ambitions and becoming an M.D. in 1954. Coles was in the South at the dawn of the civil rights movement, planning to lead a low-key life as a child psychologist. But one day, during a visit to New Orleans in 1960, he saw a white mob surrounding a six-year-old black girl named Ruby Bridges, who kneeled in her starched white dress in the middle of it all to pray for her attackers. Coles decided to begin what would become his work for the next few decades, an effort to understand how children and their parents come to terms with profound change. He conducted hundreds of interviews on the effects of school desegregation, and he shaped them into the first volume of Children of Crisis (1967), a series of books for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973.

In 1995, when Coles was 66, he co-founded a new magazine about ''ordinary people and their lives.'' It was called DoubleTake , and it featured photography and writing in the documentary tradition. The magazine was printed on fine paper with big, beautiful photo reproductions, and it won lots of awards. Robert Coles became close friends with Bruce Springsteen when they discovered a shared interest in the novelist Walker Percy. They call each other ''the Boss'' and ''the Doc.'' Last year, when DoubleTake faced financial trouble, Springsteen stepped in at the last minute. In February, he gave two benefit concerts in a small theater next to the DoubleTake office and raised almost $1 million for the magazine, enough for it to survive. At the concert, Springsteen sang and talked and took questions, and he said that Coles's book The Secular Mind (1999) was about the ''moment during everybody's day when things stop," and "you're connected to other things, larger things.'' This month, Coles will publish a book called Bruce Springsteen's America: The People Listening, a Poet Singing , about fans whose lives have been affected by Springsteen's music. Robert Coles said, ''We should look inward and think about the meaning of our life and its purposes, lest we do it in 20 or 30 years and it's too late.''

It's the birthday of actress, playwright, and novelist Alice Childress , born in Charleston, South Carolina (1916). She was taken to Harlem, New York to be was raised by her grandmother, Eliza Campbell, the daughter of a slave. Her grandmother encouraged her to write. She would sit at the window and point to people passing by and ask Alice what she thought they were thinking. Alice would make something up, and her grandmother would say, ''Now, write that down. That sounds like something we should keep.'' Childress's plays include Trouble in Mind (1955), Wedding Band (1966), and Wine in the Wilderness (1969); and she's the author of the children's books A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich (1973) and Rainbow Jordan (1981).

It's the birthday of poet and translator Robert Fitzgerald , born in Geneva, New York (1910). His books of poetry include A Wreath for the Sea (1943), In the Rose of Time: Poems 1931-1956 (1956), and Spring Shade: Poems, 1931-1970 (1971). But he's best known for his translations of ancient Greek literature, which became standards. He translated Homer's The Odyssey (1961) and The Iliad (1963), Virgil's Aeneid (1983), and plays by Sophocles and Euripides. He was close friends with the writers James Agee and Flannery O'Connor, and he edited collections by both of them.

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