Dec. 7, 2005


by Albert Garcia

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Poem: "Ice" by Albert Garcia from Skunk Talk © Bear Star Press. Reprinted with permission.


In this California valley, ice on a puddle
is a novelty for children
who stand awkward in their jackets
waiting for the school bus.
They lift off thin slabs
to hold up in the early light
like pieces of stained glass.
They run around,
throw them at each other,
lick them, laughing as their pink tongues stick
to the cold, their breath fogging
the morning gray.
           Between the Sierras
in the distance and a faint film
of clouds, the sun rises
red like the gills of a salmon.
From your porch, watching the kids,
you love this morning more
than any you remember. You hear
the bus rumbling down the road
like the future, hear the squealing
voices, feel your own blood warm
in your body as the kids sing
like winter herons, Ice, ice, ice.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the singer, songwriter and actor Tom Waits, born in Pomona, California (1949). As a teenager, his parents moved around a lot, and instead of making friends, Waits became obsessed with music. He didn't listen to rock and roll like his classmates. He was more interested in older music: George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Frank Sinatra, Jerome Kern, Cab Calloway, and the old Nat "King" Cole Trio. He later said, "I... slept right through the '60s. Never went through an identity crisis. Never had no Jimi Hendrix posters on the wall, never ate granola, never had any incense."

Out of high school he worked odd jobs, as a fireman, a cab driver, a gas station attendant. He said, "[At one point] I worked in a restaurant... [as] dishwasher, waiter, cook, plumber, janitor—everything. They called me Speed-O-Flash." He wasn't sure what he wanted to do with his life until 1968, when he read On the Road by Jack Kerouac. The book made him want to do something big, and a few weeks later he saw a local guy he knew playing jazz at a nightclub, and he realized that he needed to start making his own music.

Waits recorded a series of albums in the 1970's, but his breakthrough as an artist came in 1981 when he married the playwright Kathleen Brennan. He said, "She gave me the guts to just do it... …helped me open up and not be afraid to do something." He began to write concept albums about oddball characters, conmen, murderers and lunatics, and he often sang like a circus sideshow barker. Instead of using conventional piano or guitar, he filled his songs with tuba, pipe organ, accordion, and all kinds of percussion. It took him thirteen months to find a distributor for the first album in his new style Swordfishtrombones (1983) but when it finally came out, it was cited by many critics as one of the best albums of the year.

Waits has since begun to write for musical theater, including an operetta he wrote with William S. Burroughs called The Black Rider (1993), and the musical Alice (2002) loosely based on the life of the girl who inspired Lewis Carroll to write Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

It was on this day in 1941 that Japanese bombers attacked Pearl Harbor. The attack came after the United States had frozen Japanese assets and declared an embargo on shipments of petroleum to Japan.

On the morning of December 7, soldiers at Pearl Harbor were learning how to use a new device called radar, and they detected a large number of planes heading toward them. They telephoned an officer to ask him what to do. The officer said they must be American B-17s on their way to the base, and he told the soldiers not to worry about it.

A sailor named James Jones, who would go on to write the novel From Here to Eternity (1951), was in the mess hall that morning.

There were ultimately 2,390 Americans killed at Pearl Harbor and 1,178 wounded. Two days after the attack, the Navy passed out postcards to the survivors and told them to write to their families, but not to describe what had happened. Some families did not get their postcards until February.

It's the birthday of the novelist Willa Cather, born in Back Creek Valley, Virginia (1873). Her family moved west when she was a little girl, to get away from a tuberculosis epidemic that had killed all of her father's brothers. Congress had recently passed the Homestead Act, and thousands of people were moving west to take advantage of the free government land.

She always remembered the journey out to the plains, sitting on the hay in the bottom of a Studebaker wagon, holding on to the side to steady herself. She said, "As we drove further and further out into the country, I felt a good deal as if we had come to the end of everything—it was a kind of erasure of personality. I would not know how much a child's life is bound up in the woods and hills and meadows around it, if I had not been thrown out into a country as bare as a piece of sheet iron." Her family settled in Red Cloud, Nebraska, and she fell in love with the Nebraska landscape. She wrote, "Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth is the floor of the sky."

She went off to college, got involved in journalism and eventually moved to New York City to edit McClure's magazine. After living in New York for fifteen years, she quit her job and took a trip back home to Nebraska. Standing on the edge of a wheat field, she watched the first harvest that she had seen since her childhood. When she got back to the East, she began her first great novel, O Pioneers! (1913), about Alexandra Bergson, the oldest daughter of Swedish immigrant farmers, who struggles to work the family farm after her father dies. Cather went on to write many more novels about the westward expansion of the United States, including My Ántonia (1918), The Professor's House (1925) and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927).

Willa Cather said, "We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it—for a little while."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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