Sep. 18, 2004

The Loony

by Sandy McKinney

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Poem: "The Loony" by Sandy McKinney, from Body Grief © The Bromley Bookstore, Stamford, CT. Reprinted with permission.


Saturday nights the village toughs line up
to chase him past the church, the hardware store,
the graveyard. When he hammered at my door
I let him in, gave him a cup of tea.

Across the table when he spoke, his words
were soft, made sense enough.
Since then, I've greeted him along the road
a dozen times. He never knew me.

All afternoon he stands out in the snow,
his fingernails too long and turning blue,
staring at his little cloud of breath.

I know him by an hour's chatter and a name.
Why do I dream of combing out his hair,
of rocking with him in a scented bath?

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of actress Greta Garbo, born Greta Lovisa Gustafsson in Stockholm, Sweden (1905). She was in twenty-seven movies, including Anna Christie (1930), Grand Hotel (1932), Anna Karenina (1935), and Camille (1937). She was known as "the screen's first lady." Alistair Cooke described her as "every man's fantasy mistress."

Garbo earned more than three million dollars from her movies, but she grew up in poverty. Her father was an unskilled laborer and often couldn't find work. He fell ill when Greta was thirteen, and she quit school to take care of him. He died the next year, so Greta got work at a barbershop and a department store. The store cast her in a promotional movie, which led to other things in Stockholm and Berlin, and eventually to Hollywood.

Garbo said, "Every one of us lives his life just once; if we are honest, to live once is enough."

And she said, "I never said, 'I want to be alone.' I only said, 'I want to be left alone.' There is all the difference."

It was on this day that the first edition of the New York Times was published (1851) in a dirty, candle-lit office just off Wall Street. It cost one cent. It was founded as The New-York Daily Times by Henry J. Raymond and George Jones. They wanted a serious paper, not another popular sensationalist tabloid.

On the first page there was an article about mail ships arriving from Europe. There were articles about political affairs being quiet in England, the upcoming presidential election in France, hostility against the government in Austria, and a fugitive slave riot in rural Pennsylvania.

On the second page was printed: "We publish today the first issue of the New-York Daily Times, and we intend to issue it every morning (Sunday's excepted) for an indefinite number of years to come ...Upon all topics,—Political, Social, Moral and Religious, —we intend that the paper shall speak for itself ...We do not believe that everything in society is either exactly right, or exactly wrong; —what is good we desire to preserve and improve; —what is evil, to exterminate, or reform."

It's the birthday of British writer and lexicographer Dr. Samuel Johnson, born in Lichfield, England (1709). He is best known for his Dictionary of the English Language (1755) and Lives of the Poets (1781). Johnson's father was a bookseller, and Johnson fell in love with reading at a young age. He was bright and hardworking and attended Oxford. But he left after a year without a degree because he was embarrassed about being so poor. He opened school of his own near Lichfield, but it was a failure. Only eight students showed up.

Johnson's first writing was anonymous, and much of it was hack journalism. He made a name for himself with the poem "London" in 1738, and later wrote a prospectus for something that had been on his mind: a new dictionary of the English language. He went on to write his famous dictionary which took him more than eight years to finish. He did it mostly by himself, with little financial support. For the eight years of work he received about $887 a year—out of which he had to pay his six secretaries. It was the first dictionary to use quotations to illustrate word usage, and it became the standard English dictionary for the next 150 years.

Dr. Johnson said, "When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."

And, "A man ought to read just as inclination leads him, for what he reads as a task will do him little good."

And, "He is no wise man who will quit a certainty for an uncertainty."

And, "Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured and little to be enjoyed."

And, "Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures."

It's the birthday of French physicist Jean Bernard Léon Foucault, born in Paris, France (1819). He also invented the gyroscope and took the first clear photograph of the sun. introduced and helped develop a technique of measuring the absolute velocity of light with extreme accuracy. He is probably best known for originating the pendulum that demonstrated the earth's rotation.

In his book, Foucault's Pendulum (1990), Umberto Eco wrote, "The Pedulum told me that, as everything moved—earth, solar system, nebulae and black holes, all the children of the great cosmic expansion—one single point stood still: a pivot, bolt, or hook around which the universe could move. And I was now taking part in that supreme experience. I, too, moved with the all, but I could see the One, the Rock, the Guarantee, the luminous mist that is not body, that has no shape, weight, quantity, or quality, that does not see or hear, that cannot be sensed, that is in no place, in no time, and is not soul, intelligence, imagination, opinion, number, order, or measure. Neither darkness nor light, neither error nor truth."

It's the birthday of novelist and short story writer William March, born Edward March Campbell in Mobile, Alabama (1893). He is best known for his first and last novels, Company K (1933) and The Bad Seed (1954).

In 1917, March enlisted in the Marine Corps and served as a sergeant with the Fifth Marines in France during the First World War. He was wounded in the head and left shoulder at Belleau Wood and returned to Mobile a decorated hero. He began to write short stories after that, and his first novel, Company K, is regarded as one of the finest works of American war fiction. Graham Greene wrote in the Spectator, "His book [Company K] has the force of a mob protest; an outcry from anonymous throats." March's work was thought by some to be superior to William Faulkner's.

Company K captures just about every aspect of the war. It contains 113 small chapters arranged in the manner of the Spoon River Anthology. Each of over one hundred soldiers of a World War I Marine Corps rifle company tells his story in his own words. Private Harold Dresser says, "In my home town people point me out to strangers and say, 'You'd never believe that fellow had a hat full of medals, would you?' And the strangers always say, no they never would."

March's last novel was The Bad Seed, about an ordinary family into which a child serial killer is born. After its initial publication in 1954, the book went on to become a million-copy bestseller, a wildly successful Broadway show, and a Warner Brothers film. The chilling story of eight year-old Rhoda Penmark had great impact on the thriller genre.

The Bad Seed begins, "Later that Summer, when Mrs. Penmark looked back and remembered, when she was caught up in despair so deep that she knew there was no way out, no solution whatever for the circumstances that encompassed her, it seemed to her that June seventh, the day of the Fern Grammar School picnic, was the day of her last happiness, for never since then had she known contentment or felt peace."

William March died of a heart attack at sixty, with—as he told his friends—at least five more books in his head.

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