Oct. 13, 2004

The Woman at the Dig

by Leo Dangel

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Poem: "The Woman at the Dig" by Leo Dangel, from The Crow on the Golden Arches © Spoon River Poetry Press. Reprinted with permission.

The Woman at the Dig

Tired from running a combine
all day through acres of wheat,
alone in front of the TV, I pay
attention because the show's about
scientists digging up an ancient site.
I have no special interest in bones,
pottery, spearheads, or prehistoric
garbage dumps, and I always look past
the man describing animal migrations,
burial rites, or building design and try
to catch a glimpse of the women
working at the site - one of them
might be wearing cut-off jeans
and a halter top, clearing a patch
of ground with a trowel or brush.
These women are all experts.
You can tell by the way they look
at a bone chip or a pottery shard
they understand worlds about
the person who left it. Sifting soil,
they show more grace than contestants
in a Miss Universe pageant.
Years from now, when these farms
are ancient history, an expedition
with such a woman might come along.
I could drop something for her to find,
a pocketknife, a brass overalls button.
If only she could discover my bones.
My eyes would be long gone,
But I can see her form coming into focus
above me as she gently sweeps aside
the last particles of dust - her knee, thigh,
hip, shoulders, and finally, set off by sky
and spikes of sunlight, her face - a woman
who recognizes what she's found.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist and short story writer Conrad Richter, born in Pine Grove, Pennsylvania (1890). His father, both his grandfathers and all his uncles were preachers. As a young boy, he loved to hear them tell stories about his ancestors who had been tradesmen, soldiers, country squires, blacksmiths, and farmers. He was especially fascinated that one of his ancestors had fought in the Revolutionary War under George Washington and another had been a Hessian mercenary in the opposing British Army.

In the late 1920s, his wife got sick and doctors suggested a change of climate, so they moved to New Mexico. Richter became obsessed with the history of the Southwest, and he began traveling around interviewing older men and women and gathering old record books, newspapers, letters, and diaries of the early pioneers.

After five years of research, he wrote a book about the Southwestern settlers called Early Americana, and Other Stories (1936), and it was considered one of the best works of historical fiction ever written about Western pioneers.

He went on to write many more books, including a trilogy about frontier life in Ohio: The Trees (1940), The Fields (1946), and The Town (1950), which won the Pulitzer Prize.

It's the birthday of Harlem Renaissance writer Arna[ud] Wendell Bontemps, born in Alexandria, Louisiana (1902). For three generations, all the men in his family had been brick masons, but after his mother's death when he was twelve, his father sent him to a private school where he was the only black student. He went on to be the first member of his family to get a college degree, but his father was furious that he chose to study literature instead of medicine or law.

After he graduated from college, he moved to New York City because, he said, "I wanted to see what all the excitement was about." The excitement was the Harlem Renaissance, and he quickly became friends with writers like Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, and James Weldon Johnson. They encouraged him to publish his poetry and fiction, and his first novel, God Sends Sunday, came out in 1931.

During the Great Depression he moved with his family to the South, living in a series of ramshackle houses with tin roofs and poor ventilation. It often got so hot that he had to write his books on the front lawn under the shade of a tree.

Finally, money got so tight that he and his wife had to move in with his father, who told him to give up writing and go back to brick masonry. The room his father gave him was too small for a writing desk, so he wrote his next novel on top of a sewing machine. Based on an actual slave uprising, the novel was published in 1936 as Black Thunder, and many people consider it his masterpiece.

After Bontemps's third novel failed to sell, he gave up writing fiction and got a job as the chief librarian at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where he collected and published a series of anthologies of African American literature, including The Poetry of the Negro, 1746-1949 (1949) and The Book of Negro Folklore (1958). He is responsible for preserving much of the early African American literature that we have today.

Arna Bontemps wrote,

"I have sown beside all waters in my day. I planted deep, within my heart the fear That wind or fowl would take the grain away. I planted safe against this stark, lean year..."

It's the birthday of comedian Lenny Bruce, born Leonard Schneider in the town of Mineola [Minny-OLE-a] on New York's Long Island (1925). He got his start in comedy working as an emcee for a strip club, where he told jokes as he introduced the performers, and eventually he got his own show.

Bruce was controversial because he used profanity in his act, but also because he spoke openly about sex, race, and religion. He once said, "Because I'm Jewish, a lot of people say to me, 'Why did [the Jews] kill Christ?' We killed him because he didn't want to become a doctor, that's why we killed him." People called him a "sick comic" but he said, "I'm not sick. The world is sick, and I'm the doctor."

In 1961, a policeman came to Bruce's show and charged him with obscenity. He got out on bail, but the judge told him that if he said one dirty word at his next performance, he'd go to jail. So at his next performance, with the local district attorney in the audience, he pulled out a copy of Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer (1934) and read all the dirty parts to the audience. He figured they couldn't arrest him if he was just reading literature.

He tried to fight the charges of obscenity, in court and on stage. He said, "If God made the body, and the body is dirty, the fault lies with the manufacturer." But he sank into depression and became obsessed and paranoid. He spent entire performances reading court transcripts out loud, insulting the judge and the prosecuting attorney. After spending four months in jail, he stopped performing and died of a drug overdose on August 3, 1966.

In December of 2003, Governor George Pataki granted a posthumous pardon to Lenny Bruce for his 1964 obscenity conviction. A new box set of recordings of his performances came out this year called Let the Buyer Beware.

Lenny Bruce said, "Every day, people are straying away from the Church and going back to God."

He also said, "I'm not a comedian. I'm Lenny Bruce."

It was on this day in 1792 that the cornerstone was laid for the American presidential residence, now known as the White House. The first design for the White House came from a Frenchman named Pierre L'Enfant who had grown up in France near the palace of Versailles and who laid the plans for the entire city of Washington, D.C. He called his design "The Presidential Palace."

George Washington thought it was too fancy, so he got an Irish born architect named James Hoban to reduce the design to a fifth of its original size, and he changed the name to "The Presidential House." Even in George Washington's scaled down version, it was still the largest house ever built in the United States at that time.

John Adams was the first President to call it home. On his second night in the house, Adams wrote to his wife Abigail, "I pray heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house and on all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof." Nearly 150 years later, Franklin Roosevelt had those words carved into the mantel in the State Dining Room.

People nicknamed it the White House at the very beginning, when a coat of whitewash was brushed on to protect the vulnerable sandstone against winter freezes. But it was officially known as the "Presidential House" or "The Executive Mansion" until Teddy Roosevelt finally demanded that it be known by the nickname ordinary people had given it. Roosevelt had the words "White House" printed on the headings of all official papers and documents requiring his signature.

Many presidents have added their own touches. Jefferson was the first to install flushing toilets; Andrew Jackson got running water and the first shower; Martin Van Buren brought in central heating; and Polk replaced candles and oil with chandeliers with gas. An early form of air conditioning was improvised for the dying James A.Garfield in the summer of 1881. Rutherford B. Hayes introduced the telephone, and Benjamin Harrison had the White House rigged for electricity, though he would not touch the switches. President Truman who brought in the first television set. Dwight Eisenhower put in a putting green, Gerald Ford installed a swimming pool and Bill Clinton built a jogging track.

It currently has 132 rooms, 35 bathrooms, and 6 levels. There are also 412 doors, 147 windows, 28 fireplaces, 8 staircases, and 3 elevators. It is the only private residence of a head of state that is open to the public for tours, free of charge.

Perhaps the most famous literary description of the White House came from the poet Walt Whitman, who once wrote about walking past the White House at night. He wrote, "To-night took a long look at the President's house. The white portico-the palace-like, tall, round columns, spotless as snow...everything so white, so marbly pure and dazzling, yet soft-the White House of future poems, and of dreams and dramas, there in the soft and copious moon...the White House of the land, and of beauty and night-sentries at the gates, and by the portico, silent, pacing there in blue overcoats-stopping you not at all, but eyeing you with sharp eyes, whichever way you move."

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