Sep. 29, 2005

In the Lap of a Stranger

by Karen Whalley

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Poem: "In the Lap of a Stranger" by Karen Whalley, from The Rented Violin. © Ausable Press, 2001. Reprinted with permission.

In the Lap of a Stranger

A young man is bending
Over an old man
Lying on a street corner
At the busiest intersection
Of the city.
Homeless or drunk, I can't tell which,
But there are hundreds of us passing
And only one man stops,
Cradles that dirty head
Between his knees.

It's the soles of the shoes
Turned up that make me want
To turn away—so small!
The feet pointing like arrows
Straight up and motionless,
And the crosswalk box's little man
Walking in his mechanical way,
As if on a treadmill,
And the man not walking,
Not getting up.

When the light changes,
We all drive through,
Going forward into appointments,
Shopping and errands like a future,
Choosing the crispest head of lettuce
At the grocer's, which will taste
Particularly sharp tonight.
Glad for awhile it wasn't us
Saying our goodbyes
To our one and only life, in public,
In second-hand clothes,
Easing through the ethers
Into the afterlife
From the lap of a stranger
We've probably made late.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Miguel de Cervantes, born near Madrid (1547), a contemporary of Shakespeare's. He grew up in a distinguished, but poor family in Spain. He joined the Spanish Armada when he was 24. He was wounded on his way back from the Battle of Lepanto. He was captured by pirates and enslaved.

Eventually he returned home to Madrid, only to be put in jail there for fraud. And while he was in prison, having had all of these adventures, he began writing his masterpiece, Don Quixote, about a man who reads too many books about chivalry and goes crazy and tries to restore heroism to the world. In one episode, he mistakes a group of windmills for monsters and attacks them. Cervantes finished the work in 1615 and died one year later, on the same day as William Shakespeare.

It's the birthday of the physicist Enrico Fermi, born in Rome (1901). It was Einstein's theory that lay the basis for nuclear energy, but it was Enrico Fermi who was the first to use that theory to build the first functioning nuclear reactor, and he went on to help build the atom bomb.

He almost discovered nuclear fission in 1934, when he was still living in Italy, in a series of experiments with neutrons. And if he had not made the mistake of using tinfoil to wrap his sample of uranium, nuclear energy would probably have been discovered that year, might even have been used by Hitler to win the war.

But Fermi won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1938, went to Stockholm to accept it, and then defected to the U.S. with his wife who was Jewish. He got a job at Columbia, then at the University of Chicago where he built the first nuclear reactor on a squash court under the stands of the football field in late 1942.

He conducted the first nuclear reaction on the morning of December 2, 1942, the same morning the State Department announced that two million Jews had been killed in Europe, and five million more were in danger. And three years later, in the desert outside of Los Alamos, Fermi watched as the first atomic bomb was exploded.

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