Jan. 30, 2011


by Bill Holm

After midnight the blizzard howls itself out,
the wind sleeps, a tired lover.
Before bed, I think of you
and play the Meistersinger quintet
over and over, singing
along on all the parts,
dancing though the house
like a polar bear who thinks
it has joined the ballet.
You are in my arms, dancing too;
whirling from room to room;
frost crusted on the window
begins to glow like lit up faces.
My five fingers, now on fire
like these five voices singing,
imagine touching the skin
over your shoulders

"Blizzard" by Bill Holm, from Playing the Black Piano. © Milkweed Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1847 that Yerba Buena, California, was renamed San Francisco. "Yerba Buena" means "good herb" in Spanish, and the settlement had belonged to Mexico since 1821 (before that, it was Spain's).

American settlers began moving to Yerba Buena in the late 1830s, a decade ahead of the Gold Rush. Then the Mexican-American War began, and during the war — in July 1846 — a U.S. naval captain arrived there and claimed it for the United States.

At the end of the war, Mexico officially ceded the land, and the name was changed to San Francisco. The oldest surviving structure in San Francisco is the adobe Mission San Francisco de Asís, or St. Francis of Assisi; it was built by the Spanish in 1776, the year of the American Revolution. It's now called Mission Dolores, sharing a name with a nearby creek.

And San Francisco is now the second most densely populated city in the nation, with 815,000 people spread out over just about 47 square miles of peninsula. Since being renamed "San Francisco" 164 years ago today, the city has picked up a handful of nicknames, including "The City by the Bay," "The Paris of the West," "Baghdad by the Bay" and "Frisco" — though this last one is largely disdained and/or taboo among locals.

San Francisco houses America's only moving National Historic Landmark: the set of cable cars that operate in the city. It's the only manually operated cable car system in the world still running. The cable cars go 9.5 miles per hour, and the driver is called a "grip man." The first successful cable car line opened in 1873, about 26 years after the city's name was changed from "Yerba Buena" to "San Francisco."

It was on this day in 1972 that British army parachutists shot 27 unarmed civil rights demonstrators in Derry, Northern Ireland — an event known as "Bloody Sunday." The protestors had been marching to oppose the new British policy of imprisoning people without a hearing.

The Northern Irish conflict stemmed from a peace treaty signed in 1923, after Ireland's successful war for independence from Britain. The treaty partitioned Ireland, designating the largely Catholic south as an independent nation, while leaving six counties of Northern Ireland, which had a Protestant majority, as part of the United Kingdom.

On this day, civil rights protestors had planned a march through the city of Derry. The British army set up barricades to reroute the march to a different part of the city, but a group of teenagers broke off from the main marchers. They got to an army barricade, yelled insults at the soldiers, and threw stones. The soldiers shot tear gas and rubber bullets and a water hose at them. Then gunshots were fired, and people starting running away. The British command center sent a cease-fire order, but the soldiers continued to shoot. Twenty-seven people were shot, and 13 died; many were shot in the back while fleeing, and some while they were helping injured people on the ground. All of the protesters were unarmed.

There was a quick investigation, and the tribunal absolved the soldiers of wrongdoing. But not many people agreed, and in 1998 Tony Blair opened a second investigation. That investigation, called the Saville Inquiry, became the biggest and most expensive legal investigation in the history of Britain, costing more than 200 million pounds. The second tribunal published their findings just this past June. Their report said that the soldiers lost control, that they fired on unarmed civilians, that they shot people in the back who were fleeing to get away, and that none of the people who died had been posing a threat of death or serious injury. That afternoon on which it was published — June 15, 2010 — British Prime Minister David Cameron got up in front of the House of Commons and apologized on behalf of the British government, and his apology made front-page news around the world.

From the archives:

It's the birthday of the novelist and short-story writer Shirley Hazzard, (books by this author) born in Sydney, Australia (1931). She's best known for her novel The Transit of Venus (1980), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award.

It is the birthday of historian Barbara Tuchman, (books by this author) born in New York City (1912). She wrote The Guns of August (1962), a study of the events that led to the outbreak of World War I. She said, "War is the unfolding of miscalculations."

On this day in 1815, President James Madison approved an act of Congress appropriating $23,950 to purchase Thomas Jefferson's library of 6,487 volumes. In 1814, after capturing Washington, D.C., the British burned the U.S. Capitol, destroying the Library of Congress and its 3,000-volume collection.

It's the birthday of poet and novelist Richard Gary Brautigan, (books by this author) born in Tacoma, Washington (1935). He moved to San Francisco, where he read his poetry at psychedelic rock concerts, helped produce underground newspapers, and became involved with the Beat Movement. He had long blond hair and granny glasses.

In the summer of 1961, he went camping with his wife and young daughter in Idaho's Stanley Basin. He spent his days hiking, and it was there, sitting next to trout streams with his portable typewriter, that he wrote his most famous work, Trout Fishing in America (1967).

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




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