Oct. 8, 2006

The Ceremony of Innocence

by Anthony Hecht

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Poem: "The Ceremony of Innocence" Anthony Hecht from Collected Later Poems. © Alfred A. Knopf. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Ceremony of Innocence

He was taken from his cell, stripped, blindfolded,
And marched to a noisy room that smelled of sweat.
Someone stamped on his toes; his scream was stopped
By a lemon violently pushed between his teeth
And sealed with friction tape behind his head.
His arms were tied, the blindfold was removed
So he could see his tormentors, and they could see
The so-much-longed-for terror in his eyes.
And one of them said, "The best part of it all
Is that you won't even be able to pray."
When they were done with him, two hours later,
They learned that they had murdered the wrong man
And this made one of them thoughtful. Some years
He quietly severed connections with the others
Moved to a different city, took holy orders,
And devoted himself to serving God and the poor,
While the intended victim continued to live
On a walled estate, sentried around the clock
By a youthful, cell phone-linked praetorian guard.

Literary and Historical Notes:

On this day in 1871, the 335,000 residents of Chicago experienced yet another warm, sunny day of their three-month long drought. The conditions were getting dangerous because the whole city was built of wood. A few fires had broken out, including one the night before, for which the whole fire department was called out. But it was nothing like the Great Chicago Fire, which began the evening of October 8, at 8:45 p.m. The fire broke out at the barn of two Irish immigrants, Catherine and Patrick O'Leary, on the West Side. The story is that Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicked over a kerosene lamp while she was being milked.

The fire traveled quickly on the West Side, but the people on the other side of the Chicago River felt safe in their beds. By midnight, though, it had jumped the river and was traveling northeast and upriver. It traveled up to 30 mph at times, and generated "fire devils," whirling masses of fire and superheated air that traveled even faster than the fire itself. The fire devils caused high winds that sent burning planks and other fiery objects soaring for hundreds of yards through the air. The intense heat caused spontaneous combustion in places not yet reached by the fire.

People were running out of their houses and running north. Some people took as many belongings as they could. They ran holding cats, dogs, and goats. One eyewitness saw a lady running with a pot of soup that was spilling all over her dress. Another woman was carrying her framed wedding veil and wreath.

By the next morning, the heart of the business district was in flames. By October 10, more than three square miles in the heart of the city were completely destroyed. The property damages were $200 million. Almost 100,000 people were homeless, and nearly 300 were dead. It was more than 24 hours later, and four and a half miles from where it started, that the fire finally ran out of fuel and rain came.

But the city rebuilt itself. After 18 months had passed, more than 1,000 major buildings, valued at more than $50 million, had been erected. Two years after the fire, the value of the bare ground of the new Chicago was worth more than it had been in 1871 with all its buildings. Between 1870 and 1880, the population rose from 300,000 to 500,000. Then it more than doubled by the turn of the century.

It's the birthday of young-adult novelist R.L. (Robert Lawrence) Stine (1943), (books by this author) born in Bexley, Ohio. The creator of the Goosebumps and Fear Street series of horror novels for young people, he's one of the best-selling children's book authors of all time. He has written more than 200 books, and he's sold more than 100 million copies.

By the early 1990s, Stine's books were selling about a million copies per month. To keep up with demand, he had to write 20 pages a day, finishing a book every two weeks.

In response to critics who have said that his books aren't good for children, R.L. Stine said, "I believe that kids as well as adults are entitled to books of no socially redeeming value."

It's the birthday of the science fiction author Frank Herbert, (books by this author) born in Tacoma, Washington (1920). He's best known for his novel Dune (1965) about a desert planet where people only survive because they have learned to conserve and recycle every possible trace of moisture. Dune was one of the first science fiction novels to completely imagine an entirely different world, with different plants and animals, different social classes, and a whole set of elaborate religious beliefs.

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