Oct. 28, 2004

Passing the Orange

by Leo Dangel

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Poem: "Passing the Orange" by Leo Dangel, from Home from the Field © Spoon River Poetry Press. Reprinted with permission.

Passing the Orange

On Halloween night
the new teacher gave a party
for the parents.
She lined up the women
on one side of the schoolroom,
the men on the other,
and they had a race,
passing an orange
under their chins along each line.
The women giggled like girls
and dropped their orange
before it got halfway,
but it was the men's line
that we watched.
Who would have thought
that anyone could get them
to do such a thing?
Farmers in flannel shirts,
in blue overalls and striped overalls.
Stout men embracing one another.
Our fathers passing the orange,
passing the embrace - the kiss
of peace - complaining
about each other's whiskers,
becoming a team, winning the race.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the man who developed the polio vaccine, Dr. Jonas Salk, born in New York City (1914). He grew up in the Bronx, where his father worked in the garment district. He went to a school for gifted children and graduated from high school when he was fifteen years old. He originally planned to study law, but he found medical science too interesting to resist. At the time, the memory of the last flu epidemic in 1918 was fresh in everyone's mind, and scientists were trying to figure out how to control viruses. Salk worked on the effort to develop a flu vaccine throughout the 1940s.

In the 1950s, Salk turned his attention to the polio virus. The disease affected children and many of those infected became paralyzed or died. There had been larger and larger outbreaks of polio in the United States since the late 19th century. By 1952, more than 58,000 cases were reported and more than 3,000 children had died of the disease.

It was the height of the baby boom, there were more children in the United States than ever before, and parents were terrified. The outbreaks occurred in the summer, and parents kept their children home from swimming pools out of fear they would be infected.

Salk's groundbreaking discovery was that a vaccine could be developed from a dead virus. Scientists were skeptical at the time, but Salk believed so strongly that it would work that he first tested the vaccine on himself, his family and the staff of his laboratory to prove it was safe.

When the vaccine was finally released to the public in 1955, polio infection rates were reduced to less than 100 cases a year, and Salk was declared a national hero. On receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor from Dwight D. Eisenhower, Salk said, "I feel that the greatest reward for doing is the opportunity to do more."

It's the birthday of poet John Hollander, born in New York City (1929). His father was a research physiologist and Hollander went to the Bronx High School of Science. But he also loved the work of writers such as S.J. Perelman, and got a humor column in his high school newspaper. He went to Columbia University, where his teachers included Mark Van Doren and Lionel Trilling, and one of his classmates was Allen Ginsberg. He said, "It was perhaps the most exciting moment in history to be at an American university."

He supported himself writing liner notes for classical music albums, learned to play a variety of medieval musical instruments, and then went back to school to get his PhD in literature. He's worked as a teacher ever since, writing poetry on the side.

He's known for the quirky themes he chooses for his poetry collections. His collection Types of Shape (1969) is a series of poems that are arranged on the page so that the words form pictures of things, like a key, a cup, or a swan reflected in water. His book Reflections on Espionage: The Question of Cupcake (1976) is a long poem about a master spy who transmits coded messages to other secret agents.

His new collection Picture Window will come out this January.

John Hollander has said that he doesn't always know why he writes his poems the way he does or even what they mean. He said, "I want my poems to be wiser than I am, to know more about themselves than I do."

It's the birthday of the mystery novelist Anne Perry, born in Juliet Marion Hulme in London (1938). The creator of a series of popular mystery novels that take place in Victorian England, including The Cater Street Hangman (1979) and Pentecost Alley (1996). She's also one of the few mystery novelists ever to have been convicted of murder herself.

As a young girl, she suffered from a severe respiratory illness, so her family took her to live in New Zealand, hoping that the climate would improve her health. She was in and out of hospitals, where she was force to lay in bed for weeks at a time, forbidden to read. She said, "I just shut my eyes and lived in my head. If you can't read, you have to make your own stories—from what you have read, what you know, and what you imagine...Those people were totally real to me."

After getting out of the hospital, her first real friend was a girl named Pauline Parker, who was mentally unstable. When Perry's parents decided to take her back to England, Pauline Parker begged to come along, but her mother forbid it. She fell into a deep depression, and Perry was afraid she might commit suicide, so she agreed to help Pauline Parker murder her mother. She was on a strong medication at the time, which was later removed from the market because of its effect on judgment.

The two fifteen year-old girls were caught and convicted of murder, and the case became one of the most notorious in New Zealand criminal history. Perry became the youngest inmate in a woman's prison that had the reputation as the toughest in the country. She served her time, and upon release, changed her name and moved to England where she began writing mysteries. Even after she began to become a successful novelist, no one but her closest family and friends knew anything about her past.

But just as her 20th book Traitors Gate (1995) was about to be released, she was contacted by a journalist who had tracked her down at tied her to that original murder trial. She seriously considered going into hiding, away from the public scrutiny, but decided against it. Instead, she immediately called and visited all her neighbors, friends, and colleagues and told them the truth about her past, and even went on her book tour. She said, "In some way perhaps it was the last step as far as healing is concerned. Because I'm finding that now practically everybody in the world knows who I really am--and they still like me."

Her most recent book is A Christmas Visitor, which came out this week.

It's the birthday of British satirist Evelyn Waugh, born in London (1903). He came from a literary family: his father was the managing editor of an important British publishing house, and his older brother was a distinguished writer. But Waugh didn't do well in school, and he left Oxford without receiving a degree. He tried working as a teacher, but he got fired from three schools in two years. He said, "I was from the first an obvious dud." He was seriously in debt, without a job, and had just been rejected by the girl he liked, so he decided to drown himself in the ocean. He wrote a suicide note and jumped in the sea, but before he got very far, he was stung by a jellyfish. He scrambled back to shore, tore up his suicide note, and decided to give life a second chance.

He didn't know what else to do, so he wrote a novel about a young teacher at a private school where the other teachers are all drunks, child molesters, and escaped convicts; and the mother of one student is running an international prostitution ring. His publishers forced him to preface the book with a disclaimer that said, "Please bear in mind throughout that it is meant to be funny." The novel Decline and Fall was published in 1928, and it was a big success.

He married a woman named Evelyn, and his friends called them He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn. The marriage broke up while he was writing his second novel, and he promptly joined the Catholic Church. Some people were surprised that an author of humorous books about riots, orgies, and cannibalism would become a devout Catholic, but Waugh said, "You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid I would hardly be a human being."

Waugh went on to write many more novels, and many consider A Handful of Dust (1934), about a crumbling marriage, to be his masterpiece. It ends with the main character trapped in a jungle, reading Dickens to a madman.

He also traveled around Africa and South America, and was known as one of the most entertaining travel writers of his day, publishing books like Waugh in Abyssinia (1936) and Mexico: An Object Lesson (1939). In a dispatch from Africa, he wrote, "The table has long ago been devoured by ants and I write on my knees crouching on an empty cask...a crocodile snaps viciously at my feet and a cobra coils itself about the pen so I must stop and say good-bye."

In his later life, he grew to hate everything about the modern world-modern music, modern art, modern inventions. He never drove. He used an antique pen that had to be constantly re-dipped into ink, and when his hearing went bad, he refused to buy one of the new hearing aids. Instead, he started carrying around a giant horn that he held up to his ear.

Waugh lived in a huge house out in the English countryside, as far away from the modern world as he could get, and he kept a pet pig named Glory. He had six children, but when a reporter asked if he enjoyed being a father he said, "I see [my children] once a day for ten, I hope, awe-inspiring minutes." People called him a snob and a reactionary, but he said, "An artist must be a reactionary. He has to stand out against the tenor of the age and not go flopping along."

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