May 14, 2006

A Party

by Kate Barnes

SUNDAY, 14 MAY, 2006
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Poem: "A Party" by Kate Barnes from Kneeling Orion. © David R. Godine. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

A Party

My neighbor who hates everyone
doesn't hate the space around his trailer.
I hear his lawn tractor start up
on this late May afternoon
and I know he is riding back and forth, peacefully
beheading the grasses, drinking whiskey from his flask,
making circles around the blooming apple trees
as he dreams about whom he could sue, and for what.

Even in repose, his face
is as fierce as the face of a wild boar.
The small eyes are hot. Above him,
the old trees sway their blossoms,
white and pink, against the clear sky.

When he first moved here
he tried to make a fresh start;
he drank less, he made an effort to be civil.
Once, while he was still speaking to us,
he said he thought he'd give a garden party
every year when the apple trees were in bloom.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1796 that the doctor Edward Jenner inoculated an eight-year-old boy with a vaccine for smallpox, the first safe vaccine ever developed.

Jenner was a country doctor and surgeon in the small town of Berkeley, England, where he had lived for most of his life. The only time he'd ever been away from Berkeley was when he studied for a few years at a hospital in London. It was there that he learned the basics of the scientific method, experimentation and careful observation.

The most devastating disease in the world at the time was smallpox, a disease that caused boils to break out all over the body. It killed about one in every four adults who caught it, and one in every three children. It was so contagious that most human beings in populous areas caught it at some point in their lives. During the eighteenth century alone, it killed about sixty million people.

Jenner worked in a dairy farming area, and there was a rumor that milkmaids almost never caught smallpox. Jenner realized that the milkmaids had all suffered from disease called cowpox, which they'd caught from the udders of cows. Jenner had a hunch that the infection of cowpox somehow helped the milkmaids develop immunity to smallpox.

So on this day in 1796, he gathered some cowpox material from an infected milkmaid's hand and injected it into the arm of an eight-year-old boy named James Phipps. The boy developed a slight headache and lost his appetite, but that was all. Six weeks later, Jenner inoculated the boy with smallpox, and the boy showed no symptoms. He had developed immunity from the cowpox. It was the first time anyone had successfully prevented the infection of any contagious disease.

By 1840, the British government passed a law providing all British infants with free smallpox vaccinations: the first free medical service in the country's history. Smallpox continued to infect and kill unvaccinated people around the world through the 1960s. An effort to eradicate the disease began in 1967, and the last known natural case of smallpox occurred ten years later in Somalia.

It was on this day in 1804 that Captain Meriwether Lewis and Lieutenant William Clark set out from St. Louis, Missouri, on their overland expedition to the Pacific coast and back. (books by Lewis and Clark) President Thomas Jefferson had ordered the expedition to survey the land that had been included in the Louisiana Purchase.

On this day in 1804, the day they started their journey, William Clark wrote in his journal: "Rained the fore part of the day. ... I Set out at 4 oClock P.M., in the presence of many of the neighboring in habitants, and proceeded on under a jentle brease up the Missourie ... a heavy rain this after-noon."

Meriwether Lewis wrote on the same day, "I could but esteem this moment of my departure as among the most happy of my life."

Clark was thirty-three years old at the time and Lewis was twenty-nine. They were both Virginians and outdoorsmen. They were well-stocked for their journey: they brought clothes, guns, medical supplies and 193 pounds of portable soup—a thick paste made by boiling down beef, eggs and vegetables. They also brought gifts for Native Americans, including silk ribbons, ivory combs, 130 rolls of tobacco, vermilion face paint, 144 small pairs of scissors and twelve dozen pocket mirrors.

They crossed the Rocky Mountains, nearly starving to death in the process, surviving on horsemeat. They identified 178 plants and 122 animals that had never before been recorded for science, including the grizzly bear, which often chased the group across the plains and mountains.

They ultimately covered about eight thousand miles, and they lost only one man on the journey. He died of appendicitis. They returned to St. Louis in 1806.

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