Aug. 4, 2004

Close Call

by Phebe Hanson

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Close Call" by Phebe Hanson, from Why Still Dance © Nodin Press, 2003.

Close Call

All my life my father refused to talk about
his boyhood in Norway. "No," he'd say when
I cajoled him for details. "I'm an American now."

The only thing he'd ever talk about was how he'd
ended up in Minneapolis at Augsburg Seminary,
the story of his "close call," as he referred to it.

He was the only one of his three brothers and sister
who emigrated. "He broke our mother's heart," my aunt
told me when I visited her in Norway many years later.

She gave me the picture she'd taken the day he left, the
day after Christmas, 1920. He's impossibly young, already
wearing his life-long uniform—black suit, vest, white shirt, tie,

ready to go off to America, even if his mother's
heart is breaking, because he had to fulfill a promise
he made when he got the Spanish Flu, summer of 1918.

"Twenty two million people died," he was fond of telling me,
"twice as many as died in World War I, but I didn't die.
When I was choking and close to death, my mother

called the village doctor who performed a tracheotomy
right on our kitchen table and I promised then I'd serve
God forever if He wouldn't let me die. It was a close call."

Close call, I say, echoing my father, now dead these 20 years.
How close he came to being one of the 22 million, how he
almost didn't make it to America, almost didn't spend a

summer in Duluth, preaching at the Norwegian Seaman's
Mission, almost didn't meet my mother whose youth group
was serving coffee and cake after the service, almost didn't

marry her, almost didn't make love with her that warm June
evening of 1927, the night I was conceived, in the white frame
parsonage in Bagley, Minnesota. Close call. Close call.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, born in Sussex, England (1792). Although he drowned in a storm off the Italian coast before the age of 30, many of his poems are considered masterpieces, including "The Cloud," "To a Skylark," and "Prometheus Unbound." He said, "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." He also said, "Do it now—write nothing but what your conviction of its truth inspires you to write .... Contemporary criticism only represents the amount of ignorance genius has to contend with."

It's the birthday of Louis Armstrong, born in the birthplace of American jazz: New Orleans, Louisiana (1901), in a poor section of town known as "The Battlefield." In 1907 Louis formed a vocal quartet with three other boys and performed on street corners for tips. The Karnofskys, a family of Russian Jewish immigrants, hired Louis to work on their junk wagon. Louis purchased his first cornet with money the family loaned him.In 1913, he was sent to a reform school as a juvenile delinquent, and that's where he learned to play the cornet. Armstrong listened to pioneers like New Orleans cornetist King Oliver, who gave Armstrong his big break by letting him play in the Creole Jazz Band in Chicago in 1922. Armstrong said, "Musicians don't retire; they stop when there's no more music in them."

It's the birthday of novelist Knut Hamsun, born Knut Pedersen in Lom, Norway (1859). Author of Hunger (1890) and The Growth of the Soil (1917), he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920. He said, "Language must resound with all the harmonies of music. The writer must always, at all times, find the tremulous word which captures the thing and is able to draw a sob from my soul by its very rightness. A word can be transformed into a color, light, a smell. It is the writer's task to use it in such a way that it serves, never fails, can never be ignored."

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




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show