Nov. 8, 2003

Telephone Repairman

by Joseph Millar

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Poem: "Telephone Repairman," by Joseph Millar, from Overtime (Eastern Washington University Press).

Telephone Repairman

All morning in the February light
he has been mending cable,
splicing the pairs of wires together
according to their colors,
white-blue to white-blue
violet-slate to violet-slate,
in the warehouse attic by the river.

When he is finished
the messages will flow along the line:
thank you for the gift,
please come to the baptism,
the bill is now past due
voices that flicker and gleam back and forth
across the tracer-colored wires.

We live so much of our lives
without telling anyone,
going out before dawn,
working all day by ourselves,
shaking our heads in silence
at the news on the radio.
He thinks of the many signals
flying in the air around him
the syllables fluttering,
saying please love me,
from continent to continent
over the curve of the earth.

Literary and Historical Notes:

On this day in 1731, a group of young men in Philadelphia pooled their money to set up the first library in America. The idea for a library came about when Benjamin Franklin started a club with about 50 friends so they could debate about politics, morality and the natural sciences. The group was called the Club of Mutual Improvement. When they disagreed about a topic, they liked to consult books. But books were expensive in those days, so they combined their resources to found a subscription library. They called it the Philadelphia Library Company. The rule was that any "civil gentleman" could browse through the volumes, but only subscribers were allowed to borrow them. The library expanded over the years. Later it moved to Carpenter's Hall, the building where the First Continental Congress met in 1774. Franklin said that after the library opened, "reading became fashionable, and our people, having no public amusements to divert their attention from study, became better acquainted with books."

It's the birthday of the woman who founded the Catholic Worker Movement, Dorothy Day, born in Brooklyn, New York (1897). She started out as a journalist, and later she became an activist. She said, "Don't call me a saint. I don't want to be dismissed so easily."

It's the birthday of the woman who wrote Gone with the Wind (1936), Margaret Mitchell, born in Atlanta (1900). Growing up, she always tried to be at the center of attention. She said, "If I were a boy, I would try for West Point, if I could make it; or, well, I'd be a prize fighter — anything for the thrills." She had many suitors when she was young. She fell in love with a man who went to fight in World War I, and he never returned. Then in 1922, she married a man named Berrien Upshaw. He was a cruel and violent husband, and the marriage ended after two years. Around the same time, she began writing feature stories for an Atlanta newspaper. She got the job when she lied to the editor, saying she was a "speed demon" on a typewriter. She traveled all over the city, writing about rodeos, beauty contests, summer camps, hospitals and prison cells. She also wrote for a gossip column called "Elizabeth Bennett." Mitchell remarried a few years later, and in 1926 she developed a terrible pain in her ankle. She couldn't walk, so she had to quit her job and stay in her apartment. She passed the time reading books. After it seemed like she'd read everything in the library, she decided to try to write a book herself. She wrote Gone With the Wind, starting with the last chapter. The book tells the story of Scarlett O'Hara, a woman born on a plantation who loses everything after the Civil War. At the end of the book, Scarlett pleads with the man she loves, Rhett Butler, who says he is going to leave her. She tells him she doesn't know what she'll do if he goes away. But he replies, "My dear, I don't give a damn."

Mitchell wrote the book on a sewing table and stuffed each section of the book into a manilla envelope. She didn't like to admit that she was writing a novel. She said, "I fought violently against letting even a close friend read as much as a line." If someone walked into the room, she would throw a bath towel over her typewriter. It took her nine years to finish the book. In 1935, the famous editor Harold Latham came to Atlanta. When she met him, he said he had heard she'd written a novel. But she felt shy and told him he was mistaken. Soon afterward she was talking to an acquaintance, who said to her, "I wouldn't take you for the type who would write a successful book. You know you don't take life seriously enough to be a novelist. . . . I think you are wasting your time trying." She was so furious that she went home and grabbed her manuscript. She ran to the editor's hotel and caught him just as he was leaving to catch a train. The book was published in 1936. It ran over a thousand pages, and sold millions of copies. In 1939, the movie adaptation appeared, starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh.

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