Oct. 8, 2010


by Kenneth Rexroth

We slept naked
On top of the covers and woke
In the chilly dawn and crept
Between the warm sheets and made love
In the morning you said
"It snowed last night on the mountain"
High up on the blue-black diorite
Faint orange streaks of snow
In the ruddy dawn
I said
"It has been snowing for months
All over Canada and Alaska
And Minnesota and Michigan
Right now wet snow is falling
In the morning streets of Chicago
Bit by bit they are making over the world
Even in Mexico even for us"

"Gradualism" by Kenneth Rexroth, from Sacramental Acts: The Love Poems of Kenneth Rexroth. © Copper Canyon Press, 1997. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the science fiction author Frank Herbert, (books by this author) born in Tacoma, Washington (1920). He was a journalist and an early member of the environmentalist movement, but at some point he decided to give up on journalism and put his ideas about the environment into science fiction novels. His first big success was 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. It became a cult novel on college campuses and went on to sell about 12 million copies. Herbert spent a lot of the money he made inventing solar and wind cooling systems for his home.

It's the birthday of historian Walter Lord, (books by this author) born in Baltimore (1917). His most famous book was A Night to Remember (1955), about the sinking of the Titanic, a disaster that had fascinated him since he was a boy. He said: "I think small boys get interested in things the way they catch colds or get chicken pox. Nobody knows why or how they do it. ... I suppose if there is anything more exciting to a young boy than an ocean liner, it is an ocean liner sinking."

But actually, there was a pretty good reason that young Walter knew about the Titanic. His mother told him bedtime stories every night about the big ocean liners she had sailed on, including the Olympic, a sister ship of the Titanic. When Walter's father proposed to his mother, she told him she needed to think about it, and so she got a ticket on the Olympic from New York to London. She decided that she would say yes, so as soon as she got to London she got another ticket, turned right around and went back to New York to accept. When Walter was nine years old, his mother took him on the Olympic for a transatlantic cruise, and he quizzed all the crew members about the exact details of the Titanic's disaster.

So he was well-prepared to write a book by the time he was in his 30s, working a respectable day job for an advertising agency. At night he did research, pored over documents about the Titanic, and interviewed more than 60 survivors. And then he tried to reconstruct a history of the disaster, a narrative that would be factual would also give readers a sense of the lives of the passengers, and tell the events of the disaster like a story. A Night to Remember became the ultimate resource for Titanic buffs. It was a best-seller when it came out in 1955, and again in 1999 after the success of the film Titanic.

Walter Lord said that one of his goals for A Night to Remember was "to get across the point that wealth, position, rank and the like have very little to do with whether a person is good or bad, quick or slow, brave or perhaps not so brave. We get all that somewhere else.''

It's the birthday of young adult novelist R.L. [Robert Lawrence] Stine, (books by this author) born in Bexley, Ohio (1943). He quit his job as a social studies teacher to become a freelance writer, and at first he specialized in humorous books for kids. But his career really took off when he started writing scary stories for young adults. 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. His Fear Street series was the first modern book series for children that sold equally well to both boys and girls. Some critics have said that his books aren't good for children, but R.L. Stine said, "I believe that kids as well as adults are entitled to books of no socially redeeming value."

It was on this day in 1871 that two deadly fires broke out in the Midwest: the Great Chicago Fire and the Peshtigo fire. Chicago was such a well-known city, and the myth that the fire was started by a cow made for such a good story, that the Chicago fire eclipsed the Peshtigo fire in national legend. But the Peshtigo fire was the deadliest fire in American history. At least 1,200 people died, maybe twice as many. And at least 1.2 million acres of forest were burned. Sixteen towns, including Peshtigo, were burned.

Peshtigo, Wisconsin, was a prosperous logging town in the North Woods. It centered on the Peshtigo Company, which had a woodenware factory and a sawmill and employed about 800 loggers. It had a population of 1,700 — more than 2,000, including the surrounding farmers. There were two churches, four hotels, several general stores, a few saloons, and a lot of houses. Every building burned to the ground except one house that had just been built — the wood was too green to burn.

October 8th was a Sunday, and plenty of people were praying for rain, because that part of the North Woods had been in a drought since May; some accounts say that only a half-inch of rain had fallen since June. A lot of what we know about the Peshtigo fire comes from the detailed account of one of its survivors, Father Peter Pernin, the parish priest for Peshtigo and the nearby town called Marinette. He reported that small intense brush fires had been breaking out for weeks. He attributed those fires to the fact that many farmers had been taking advantage of the dry weather to burn tracts of land to clear the forest, and that hunters and travelers were in the practice of lighting fires at night to keep away animals and then not bothering to extinguish them the next morning. Pernin wrote, "In this way the woods, particularly in the fall, are gleaming everywhere with fires lighted by man, and which, fed on every side by dry leaves and branches, spread more or less. If fanned by a brisk gale of wind they are liable to assume most formidable proportions." Also, logging practices of the time made it easy for forest fires to take hold — the tops of trees were left behind, and when they dried out they made perfect kindling all through the forest. And on top of the farmers and loggers clearing land, railroad workers were doing the same, clearing land for tracks.

And sure enough, at about 8:30 p.m. on October 8th, the wind picked up and residents of Peshtigo saw fire on the horizon. It swept through the town, a fire described as a tornado or a hurricane because it was such a huge force, propelled by intense winds that came in on a cold front from the west. The entire town was gone by 10 p.m.

One grieving woman wrote in a letter to her sister-in-law: "There was a tornado of fire swept over the farming district and on the Peshtigo village, it came on us very suddenly [...] Oh Mary, it was truly a night of horror, it rained fire; the air was on fire; some thought the last day had come, Mary — my father, four brothers, two sisters-in-law and five of their children, two of Grace's, and three of brother Walter's, ah dear Mary, we are almost crazy, one can hardly keep one's senses together to write you anything."

Father Pernin wrote: "The air was no longer fit to breathe, full as it was of sand, dust, ashes, cinders, sparks, smoke, and fire. It was almost impossible to keep one's eyes unclosed, to distinguish the road, or to recognize people, though the way was crowded with pedestrians, as well as vehicles crossing and crashing against each other in the general flight. Some were hastening towards the river, others from it, whilst all were struggling alike in the grasp of the hurricane. A thousand discordant deafening noises rose on the air together. The neighing of horses, falling of chimneys, crashing of uprooted trees, roaring and whistling of the wind, crackling of fire as it ran with lightning-like rapidity from house to house — all sounds were there save that of the human voice. People seemed stricken dumb by terror. They jostled each other without exchanging look, word, or counsel."

To save themselves, everyone ran for the river. Many people died not by being burned, but from suffocation, or from heart attacks as they ran for water. More people died from the Peshtigo fire than from the two next-deadliest fires combined. Of the more than a thousand dead, at least 350 were dumped in a mass grave.

Peshtigo has a museum commemorating the fire, although there's not that much to put in it because almost nothing in the town survived the fire. There is a perfectly preserved tabernacle that Father Pernin saved by putting it in the river. There is a can of blueberries that melted and then petrified. There are also a few dishes, a piece of wood from the only house that survived, and a Bible that was found just about 15 years ago buried underneath a parking lot, slightly charred and opened to the Book of Psalms.

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