Jun. 22, 2006

Who Was That Man?

by Paul Bussan

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Poem: "Who Was That Man?" by Paul Bussan from A Rage of Intelligence: Poems. © PSB Publishing. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Who Was That Man?

I love those movies
About a stranger
Who rides into town
On the back of a horse,
And proceeds to start
A chain of events
That makes each person
Take stock of their lives,
So that after he's gone
Everyone's better
Or worse for the wear
Than they were
Before he arrived.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1944 that President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law the GI Bill of Rights. It was one of the most important and influential pieces of legislation ever signed by an American president, but the newspapers barely covered the story at the time. They were too busy reporting on the Allied invasion of Europe.

The law was passed in part because of the experience of veterans of the First World War. Many of them had lost their jobs during the Great Depression and became homeless. They had been promised a veteran's bonus when they reached the age of retirement, but many worried they'd never live that long, since they were sleeping under bridges and starving on the street. A group of veterans went to Washington, D.C., to demand their bonuses early, and they had to be driven out of the city with tanks and tear gas.

Legislators in Congress didn't want that to happen again, especially since there would be so many veterans coming home from World War II. Economists at the time were predicting a post-war depression, and politicians were terrified of the idea of nine million unemployed former soldiers wandering the country. The first version of the GI Bill just guaranteed unemployment benefits for a year. A congressional committee threw in the idea that veterans should get money to go to college if they wanted to.

The presidents of many of the most prestigious universities around the country thought the GI Bill was a terrible idea. They argued that flooding the universities with veterans who might not have the same level of education as traditional college students would ruin the whole university system. Other critics said that the GI Bill would encourage laziness, helping veterans avoid real jobs. But the Congress and the president went ahead and passed the GI Bill anyway.

Even the supporters of the bill didn't think very many GIs would really want to go to college. In fact, about a million veterans applied for the money within the first year after the war, and ultimately 2.2 million veterans used the money to obtain higher education, many of them becoming the first members of their families to receive a college diploma. Before the war, about 10 percent of Americans attended college. After the war, that figure rose to about 50 percent.

The surge in enrollment was difficult for many college campuses. New students set up Quonset huts and surplus barracks on campus lawns. A college in Ohio set up a dormitory in a Coast Guard boat on the Muskingum River. Stanford converted a military hospital into a set of apartments.

And contrary to most expectations, the grade-point averages at most colleges went up with the influx of veterans, and dropout rates went way down. Professors at the time said that the veterans were the most serious and disciplined students they'd ever seen. The cost to taxpayers of the GI Bill was about 5.5 billion dollars, but the result was 450,000 engineers, 240,000 accountants, 238,000 teachers, 91,000 scientists, 67,000 doctors, 22,000 dentists, 17,000 writers and editors, and thousands of other professionals. It helped spur one of the greatest economic booms in American history.

It's the birthday of novelist Dan Brown, (books by this author) born in Exeter, New Hampshire (1964). He's the author of one of the best-selling books of all time: The Da Vinci Code (2003). It's estimated that there are about sixty million copies of The Da Vinci Code in print worldwide.

Brown's first three novels have all become paperback best-sellers. Even books that Brown used as sources for The Da Vinci Code are seeing their sales increase thanks to all the publicity. A movie of the novel came out last month (2006).

It's the birthday of filmmaker Billy Wilder, (books by this author) born Samuel Wilder in the town of Sucha, which is now part of Poland (1906). He came to the United States after Nazis took power in Germany in the 1930s. He learned English by going out on dates with any American woman who was willing, and started writing screenplays for Fox Film Corporation.

He went on to become a director because he got sick of watching his best dialogue get cut from the movies he worked on. He made all kinds of movies: musicals, comedies, dramas, but most of his movies are about hypocrisy. His first major success as a director was Double Indemnity (1944), and he also directed Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Some Like It Hot (1959).

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