Apr. 14, 2005

Rural Route

by Elise Partridge

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Poem: "Rural Route" by Elise Partridge, from Fielder's Choice. © Vehicule Press.

Rural Route

He picked three dozen quarts, starting at dawn;
died suddenly in the garden. "Around one,
he had a stroke—I found him, but he was gone—."
He left a widow, three daughters and six sons.

Two days later, widow and children, at dawn,
picked forty dozen. They ate, washed, dressed;
buried him in the churchyard just after one.
Early the next day, they picked the rest.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1828 that Noah Webster published his American Dictionary of the English Language. He was a man who'd grown up in America at a time when Americans from different states could barely understand each other, because they spoke with such different accents and even different languages. Americans in Vermont spoke French, New Yorkers spoke Dutch, and the settlers in Pennsylvania spoke German. All these different languages were influencing American English, and there were no standards of spelling or meaning.

Webster knew from European history that linguistic differences could deeply divide a nation, so he decided that in order to pull the young United States together, there needed to be a common language, and he would devote his life to capturing that language.

He spent 20 years working on his dictionary, which contained 70,000 words, and he did all the research and the handwriting of the book by himself. He is believed to be the last lexicographer to complete a dictionary without any assistance.

Instead of using quotations from literature to show words in context, he wrote his own sentences as examples. For the verb "to love" he wrote, "The Christian loves his Bible." For the word "inestimable" he wrote, "The privileges of American citizens, civil and religious, are inestimable." For the word "indulgence," he wrote, "How many children are ruined by indulgence!"

Webster's dictionary had the result he intended. His standardized spelling and pronunciation guides helped ensure that Americans who speak English speak more or less the same English. America has the fewest dialects of any major country in history.

It was on this day, Good Friday, in 1865 that President Abraham Lincoln was shot in the back of the head while watching a performance of the play Our American Cousin at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C.

Lincoln had received word of Robert E. Lee's surrender, and the end of the Civil War, just a few days before he died. He spent his last week as President arguing with Congress about how to readmit the Southern states to the Union. He believed that there should be as little punishment for the rebels as possible.

He had a dream that week that he was on a boat, moving rapidly toward shore. It was the same dream he'd had just before every positive development since the war started. He believed it was a sign that everything was coming out right. That afternoon, at 3:00, Lincoln took a ride in an open carriage with his wife, and he was the happiest she'd ever seen him. He told her, "I consider this day, the war, has come to a close."

He had made plans to go to the theater that night. His wife didn't want to go, but Lincoln felt obligated, since the newspapers had announced that he would be attending, and tickets had been sold based on his appearance. It turned out that scalpers had bought up most of the tickets and sold them at twice the regular price. When Lincoln arrived at the theater late, most of the audience was grumbling that they'd wasted their money in hopes of seeing the President. When he finally entered, the orchestra interrupted the play and performed "Hail to the Chief." The audience cheered, and Lincoln made his way up to the President's box.

John Wilkes Booth, a well-known actor, had no trouble getting into the theater without a ticket, since he knew most of the theater's employees. He stood for a while outside the door to the President's box. One of the audience members noticed him there and later said that he was the handsomest man she'd ever seen. Just after 10:00 p.m., he snuck into the President's box and barred the door behind him. He waited until the audience gave out a loud burst of laughter, and then shot the President in the back of the head, from about two feet away.

Booth then vaulted over the balcony onto the stage, breaking his foot in the process. Waving a dagger in the air, he shouted at the audience, "Sic semper tyrannis!" the Virginia State Motto, which means "Thus always to tyrants." One of the audience members said that he limped away from the stage with a motion like the hopping of a bullfrog. Lincoln died of his injury the following morning.

Today is the anniversary of Black Sunday, the day in 1935 when a windstorm hit a part of the Great Plains known as the Dust Bowl. That area of farmland, which included parts of Colorado, New Mexico, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, was considered some of the most fertile land in America at the turn of the Twentieth Century. Farmers flocked to the area and the wide use of mechanical tractors had plowed up millions of acres of land. When a drought hit the area in the 1930's, and all that plowed up earth turned to dust.

The weather was sunny and calm, and people were on their way home from church, or out visiting friends for lunch, when they saw huge flocks of birds flying south, away from a dark black cloud on the northern horizon. As the cloud approached, people realized that it wasn't a storm cloud, but a cloud of dirt, blown up by the wind.

Witnesses said it was like a black tidal wave came down from the sky. It became as dark as night as soon as the cloud descended. Static electricity stalled cars and shorted out telephone lines. People standing a few yards away from their homes got lost in the darkness, and grabbed onto fence posts to keep from being blown to the ground. It was later estimated that the storm carried 300 million tons of soil through the air.

The term "Dust Bowl" was coined to describe the area hit by the storm. For years people had to live with dust that got into flour bins and on walls and windows. People had to wash their dishes before they put them on the table, because they were so covered with dirt.

Farmers would hang wet blankets across their windows, and they went to bed with wet cloths across their faces. People woke up some mornings to find the area around their houses buried under piles of dust, like snowdrifts. The condition of the land eventually forced most families to join the great migration west to California.

Coincidentally, it was four years later on this day in 1939 that John Steinbeck published his novel about the farmers displaced by the Dust Bowl drought: The Grapes of Wrath. He was commissioned to write a series of articles about the migrating farmers for a San Francisco newspaper. To get to know the people involved, he bought an old bakery truck, filled it with blankets, food, and cooking utensils, and joined the migration himself. He was horrified by the condition of the people he saw in the migrant camps. He saw whole families sleeping on the ground, children so exhausted by hunger that they didn't wave the flies away from their faces, and mothers giving birth to babies they didn't have the milk to nurse.

He decided to write a novel based on his research, focusing on the fictional family he called the Joads. But he interspersed the chapters about the Joad family with short chapters describing the migration as a whole. The result was that people read the novel as a social document more than a work of fiction, and it influenced the way the Roosevelt Administration dealt with the migrant farmers. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1940.

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