Nov. 23, 2010

Flying at Night

by Ted Kooser

Above us, stars. Beneath us, constellations.
Five billion miles away, a galaxy dies
like a snowflake falling on water. Below us,
some farmer, feeling the chill of that distant death,
snaps on his yard light, drawing his sheds and barn
back into the little system of his care.
All night, the cities, like shimmering novas,
tug with bright streets at lonely lights like his.

"Flying at Night" by Ted Kooser, from One World at a Time. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today we celebrate the birthday of Henry McCarty, better known as Billy the Kid, who might have been born on this day in New York City in 1859. That's according to the book that made the Kid famous after his death, The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid by Pat Garrett and Ash Upson. But the date, year, and place of his birth are all up for debate — November 23rd was Upson's own birthday, and he might have just needed a birth date for his subject, who up until just a few months before he died was known simply as The Kid.

The facts of the outlaw's short life are fuzzy. His mother, Catherine, was certainly an Irish immigrant to New York City, and a widow, and at some point she moved her two sons, Henry and Joe, to Indianapolis and then to Wichita, Kansas, in 1870. Wichita was a rough pioneer town, but Catherine was a strong woman, determined to start a life there. Less than a month after they had arrived, she was the only woman involved in a petition to make Wichita a municipality. She started a successful laundry business, washing clothes by hand, and dabbled in real estate. She tried to give her sons some education. But Wichita remained a wild place, where horse thieves and outlaws rode in and out and murders were commonplace. And then Catherine was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and the family moved again, this time ending up in New Mexico, where Catherine married her long-term boyfriend and young Henry McCarty got a new stepfather.

Catherine found her place in New Mexico right away, taking in boarders and baking pies and cakes. But her tuberculosis got worse, and she died, leaving Henry and Joe to fend for themselves — their stepfather had taken off to prospect for gold and gamble.

So the boys tried to make do on their own. The Kid's first crime was stealing some butter from a farmer, but the sheriff felt sorry for him and let him go. He stayed in a boardinghouse and became friends with a thief known as Sombrero Jack. Jack stole laundry from a Chinese launderer in town and gave it to the Kid to hide, telling him he could have some clothes in return, which the boy needed. Then Sombrero Jack skipped town, and the woman who ran the boardinghouse discovered Henry with the missing laundry, and he was arrested.

The sheriff only meant to scare the boy, hoping it would deter him from a life of crime. When he asked if he could wander around the corridors instead of being confined to a cell, the sheriff agreed readily. That night, the Kid escaped through the chimney of the prison and left town, and so his life as an outlaw began. He was probably about 15 years old.

He had trouble finding a job, partly because he was so small and youthful looking. An acquaintance described him as "a short, slender young man with large front teeth, giving a chronic grin to his expression." So he turned to crime. He stole horses and rustled cattle, and eventually he got involved in a feud between two business factions looking to control the dry-goods business in Lincoln County, New Mexico. It became known as the Lincoln County War, and Billy the Kid fought to defend his boss, John Tunstall, who had hired him as a ranch hand. The feud escalated, with regular murders on both sides, and the Kid was arrested by an old acquaintance, Pat Garrett, now the Lincoln County sheriff. He put him in jail, but the Kid once again managed to escape. Garrett made it his mission to find the outlaw, and he tracked him to Fort Sumner and shot him.

As far as his actual crimes went, there wasn't much to make Billy the Kid stand out from other outlaws of his day. But he has endured as a mythical figure, partly because The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid made him famous, and partly because he was such a memorable personality. He charmed just about everyone — Frank Coe, who joined in the Lincoln County feud but was generally a respectable citizen, described the young outlaw: "He was about seventeen, 5ft 8in, weight 138lbs and stood straight as an Indian, fine looking lad as ever I met. He was a lady's man and the Mexican girls were all crazy about him. He spoke their language well. He was a fine dancer, could go all their gaits and was one of them. He was a wonder, you would have been proud to know him."

Last summer, New Mexico's outgoing Governor, Bill Richardson, announced that he was considering a posthumous pardon for Billy the Kid, in light of a promised pardon during the Kid's lifetime by then-governor Lew Wallace, which Wallace did not follow through on. The descendents of Pat Garrett, the sheriff who shot Billy the Kid, protested in honor of their relative.

It was on this day in 1644 that John Milton published a pamphlet called Areopagitica,arguing for freedom from censorship. He said, "I wrote my Areopagitica in order to deliver the press from the restraints with which it was encumbered; that the power of determining what was true and what was false, what ought to be published and what to be suppressed, might no longer be entrusted to a few illiterate and illiberal individuals, who refused their sanction to any work which contained views or sentiments at all above the level of vulgar superstition." He compared the censoring of books to the Spanish Inquisition and claimed that the government wanted "to bring a famine upon our minds again."

Milton was not just championing this cause out of the goodness of his heart — he had a far more personal reason. Many years earlier, his father had lent £300 and a £500 bond to a man named Richard Powell. In the early summer of 1642, John Milton traveled to Oxfordshire, where Powell lived, and one month later he returned to London with a 17-year-old bride, Powell's daughter. But the marriage didn't work out very well — according to contemporary biographers, Mary found Milton dull and severe compared to her generous and warm family. In any case, after a month, she went home to visit her relatives and then refused to come back (she did, years later). He was not allowed to divorce her and find a new wife because the only grounds for divorce were adultery.

In 1643, he published a pamphlet called Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce. He argued that marriage should be mutually supportive. He deconstructed biblical texts and civil and canon law. He wrote: "Marriage is a cov'nant the very beeing wherof consists, not in a forc't cohabitation, and counterfet performance of duties, but in unfained love and peace. [...] It is a lesse breach of wedlock to part with wise and quiet consent betimes, then still to soile and profane that mystery of joy and union with a polluting sadnes and perpetuall distemper; for it is not the outward continuing of mariage that keeps whole that cov'nant, but whosoever does most according to peace and love, whether in mariage, or in divorce, he it is that breaks mariage least; it being so often written, that Love only is the fulfilling of every Commandment."

Milton followed up Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce with two more pamphlets about divorce. He refused to get any of them approved and licensed by the government before printing, which had been mandated in an order from 1643. His divorce pieces got a lot of negative response, in many cases from people who thought his ideas were immoral and blasphemous, but more specifically from people who were shocked that he was publishing such controversial material and not getting it licensed first. So it was in reaction to all the uproar that he wrote Areopagitica. He wrote, "Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God's image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye."

From the archives:

It was on this day in 1889 that the Jukebox made its debut at the Palais Royale Saloon in San Francisco. It consisted of an Edison Class M Electric Phonograph inside an oak cabinet with tubes sticking out, and by depositing a coin you could listen to the recording through the tube. In its first six months of service, the Nickel-in-the-Slot earned more than $1,000.

But for a long time, the coin-operated player pianos were more popular, because they had better sound and no static. It wasn't until 1927 that the Automatic Musical Instruments Company introduced the first jukebox that sounded good enough to entertain an entire room.

The word "jukebox" comes from the word "jook" — meaning disorderly or wicked — which probably came to this country from West Africa. In the years after slavery, African-Americans used the phrase "juke house" or "juke joint" to refer to dancehalls, and when these dancehalls installed coin-operated phonographs, they were called jukeboxes.

At a time when many early radio programs refused to play country, blues, or jazz, it was jukeboxes that made that music available in taverns, restaurants, diners, and on Army bases. And music companies realized there was a big audience for different genres of music.

Willie Nelson said, "Ninety-nine percent of the world's lovers are not with their first choice. That's what makes the jukebox play."

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




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