Feb. 23, 2011

A Day at the Beach

by Peter Schmitt

If he had been paying more attention
to whatever my mother was saying
from under her hat beneath the umbrella,

or watching more closely over my brother,
off playing somewhere with his shovel and pail,
or me, idly tracing my name in the sand,

if he hadn't had that faraway look,
gazing out to where the freighters crawled along
the horizon so that when he suddenly

pushed up and off, sand in his wake, visor
taking wing behind him, you could believe,
as he churned toward the glassy water,

that it had just come to him to chuck it all,
this whole idea of family, and make
for those southbound freighters and the islands

then he might have never seen the arm heaved up,
the lifeguards running just as my father
was lifting the old man out of the surf

and bearing him ashore, the blue receding
from his cramped limbs. And as a crowd closed around
the gasping figure struggling to his knees,

my father turned back to us sheepishly,
almost, back to the endless vigilance
of husband and of father, which was all

he had ever asked for in the first place.

"A Day at the Beach" by Peter Schmitt, from Hazard Duty. © Copper Beach Press, 1995. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day 190 years ago — in 1821— that poet John Keats (books by this author) died at the age of 25. He had been sick with tuberculosis. He was buried at the Protestant Cemetery in Rome with a gravestone bearing the epitaph: "Here lies one whose name was writ in water."

The English Romantic poet is remembered for his sonnets and for long poems like "Ode to a Nightingale," "To Autumn," and "The Eve of St. Agnes." And he's remembered for having written some of the most beautiful love letters in the English language. He once wrote to his beloved Fanny Brawne in July 1819:
"Even when I am not thinking of you I receive your influence and a tenderer nature steeling upon me. All my thoughts, my unhappiest days and nights have I find not at all cured me of my love of Beauty, but made it so intense that I am miserable that you are not with me: or rather, breathe in that dull sort of patience that cannot be called Life. I never knew before, what such a love as you have made me feel, was; I did not believe in it; my Fancy was afraid of it, lest it should burn me up. But if you will fully love me, though there may be some fire, 'twill not be more than we can bear when moistened and bedewed with Pleasures."

The following autumn he wrote to her these now-famous lines:
"I have been astonished that Men could die Martyrs for religion — I have shudder'd at it. I shudder no more — I could be martyr'd for my Religion — Love is my religion — I could die for that — I could die for you. My Creed is Love and you are its only tenet. You have ravish'd me away by a Power I cannot resist; and yet I could resist till I saw you; and even since I have seen you I have endeavoured often "to reason against the reasons of my Love." I can do that no more — the pain would be too great — My Love is selfish — I cannot breathe without you."

And a few days later: "I should like to cast the die for Love or death. I have no Patience with any thing else."

It was on this day in 1896 that the Tootsie Roll was introduced. It became America's first individually wrapped penny candy.

It was invented by a man named Leo Hirshfield, who had been trained as a candy maker in Austria and then immigrated to New York City. He held a few different patents in the candy-making world, including one for a machine that deposited candy-goo into molds, and another patent for a special bonbon-dipping machine.

At the time, bonbons and other chocolate candy were mostly only for rich people, since there wasn't yet a process to make chocolate durable, preservable, and hardy enough to travel. Generally, it would either melt or break down and crystallize after a short time. But Hirshfield came up with a recipe that included cocoa power and a corn syrupy base, and he boiled down the concoction and found a way to package it cheaply and imperishably. He named the candy "Tootsie" after his daughter, Clara "Tootsie" Hirshfield. Other ingredients include sugar, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, condensed milk, soy lecithin, and a number of artificial flavors.

In 1931, the Tootsie Pop was introduced, and it was very popular during the Great Depression because it was so cheap. During World War II, Tootsie Rolls — able to withstand all sorts of heat and cold and other elements in transit — were part of American soldiers' ration kits. Now there are about 62 million Tootsie Rolls manufactured around the world each day.

It was on this day in 1940 that Woody Guthrie wrote the lyrics to "This Land is Your Land" — now one of America's most famous folk songs.

The melody is to an old Baptist hymn. Guthrie wrote the song in response to the grandiose "God Bless America" song, written by Irving Berlin and sung by Kate Smith. Guthrie didn't think that the anthem represented his own or many other Americans' experience with America. So he wrote a folk song as a response to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America," a song that was often accompanied by an orchestra. At first, Guthrie titled his own song "God Blessed America" — past tense. Later, he changed the title to "This Land is Your Land," which is the first line of the song.

Although Guthrie wrote the words to the song in his notebook on this day in 1940, he didn't perform it until 1944, and it was several years more still before he published it in a book of mimeographed folk songs. The song really took off in the 1960s. Bob Dylan did a famous version, and the song was huge in the Civil Rights movement.

Several other countries have appropriated the great American folk song. There's a Canadian version with the lyrics: "From Bonavista to Vancouver Island / From the Arctic Circle to the Great Lakes waters, / This land was made for you and me."

In a British version, which Billy Bragg often performs, it's "From the coast of Cornwall to the Scottish Highlands / From the sacred forests to the holy islands /This land was made for you and me."

And for the Irish, it's: "From the northern highlands to the western islands / From the hills of Kerry to the streets of Derry / This land was made for you and me."

There are Welsh and Swedish texts as well. Bruce Springsteen sang "This Land is Your Land" at 2008 rallies for candidate Barack Obama, and then performed it at the big Obama inaugural celebration concert at the Lincoln Memorial, We Are One, which 400,000 people attended.

From the archives:

It's the birthday of the diarist Samuel Pepys, (books by this author) born in London (1633). He was born into poverty, but he managed to work his way up to become a naval administrator and a member of Parliament. And he kept a diary, collecting all his thoughts for about 10 years, about large and small matters. He wrote about the Great Plague of 1665, the Great Fire of 1666, and the Second Anglo-Dutch War; but he also wrote about what he liked to eat, his love life with his wife, his insecurities, and his extramarital affairs.

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




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