Aug. 15, 2005

The Book of A

by Wesley McNair

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Poem: "The Book of A" by Wesley McNair, from Talking in the Dark. © David R Godine. Reprinted with permission

The Book of A

Raised during the Depression, my stepfather
responded to the economic opportunity
of the 1950s by buying more
and more cheap, secondhand things
meant to transform his life.
I got this for a hundred bucks,
he said, patting the tractor that listed
to one side, or the dump truck that started
with a roar and wouldn't dump.
Spreading their parts out on his tarp.
he'd make the strange whistle
he said he learned from the birds
for a whole morning
before the silence set in.
Who knows where he picked up
the complete A–Z encyclopedias
embossed in gold and published
in 1921? They were going to take these
to the dump, he said. Night after night
he sat up, determined to understand
everything under the sun
worth knowing, and falling asleep
over the book of A. Meanwhile, as the weeks,
then the months passed, the moon
went on rising over the junk machines
in the tall grass of the only
world my stepfather ever knew,
and nobody wrote to classify
his odd, beautiful whistle, formed
somehow, in the back of his throat
when a new thing seemed just about to happen
and no words he could say expressed his hope.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of contemporary poet Mary Jo Salter, born in Grand Rapids, Michigan (1954). She's the author of several collections of poetry, including Sunday Skaters (1994), A Kiss in Space (1999), and Open Shutters (2003).

It's the birthday of food writer Julia Child, born Julia McWilliams in Pasadena, California (1912). She was a tomboy growing up, and never cooked anything. She grew to be more than six feet tall, and when she went to college she wanted to be a basketball star. She eventually changed her mind and tried to write a novel, but that didn't work out either.

During World War II, she got a job with the Office of Strategic Service and hoped to become a spy, but instead she worked as a file clerk. She got to know her future husband Paul Child in China, and they both became obsessed with Chinese cuisine. When they got back to the United States, they got married, and she started taking cooking lessons. She later said, "I was 32 when I started cooking; up until then, I just ate."

Though Harry Truman had announced the Japanese surrender the day before, it was on this day in 1945 that the Allies officially declared V-J Day, beginning one of the most prosperous and peaceful periods in American history.

American factories had become more and more efficient throughout the war, and once it was over, they were able to focus on consumer goods. In the year after World War II ended, Detroit produced 2.1 million cars, a 2500% increase from the year before. Factories also began to produce all the appliances that had been invented but that no one had been able to afford before the war: washing machines, dishwashers, refrigerators, and televisions.

Hundreds of thousands of happy couples had romantic reunions after the end of World War II, and nine months after V-J day, in May, 1946, 233,452 babies were born in the United States. It was the largest number of babies that had ever been born in a single month in American history. By the end of 1946, 3.4 million babies had been born, the largest generation of Americans ever born at that point.

More than anything else, these new American families wanted houses. The country became so crowded that more than a half million families were living in Quonset huts. Many newly married couples had to move in with their families. The government provided a mortgage program for returning soldiers, and developers began to build houses by the tens of thousands.

The most famous housing developments were those built by the Levitts of Long Island, New York, who build more than 140,000 houses. The average house in Levittown cost about eight thousand dollars, with a mortgage payment of sixty-five dollars a month. When people first moved into the new neighborhoods, there were no streets or streelights, and the lawns had yet to grow grass. But every new house included a stove, a refrigerator, and a washing machine.

The period of economic growth that followed World War II would last for thirty years, and the prosperity was more widespread in the post-war years than during any other economic boom since. For many Americans it was the greatest period in our country's history. Whenever politicians talk about the way things used to be, they're almost always referring to the period after World War II.

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