Jul. 23, 2011

Boy Scouts Camping Out

by Norbert Krapf

We sat cross-legged peering into the fire
with a circle of tents at our back.

Flickering coals spotlighted the face
of the scout whose turn it was to talk.

Sucking on cigarettes, we voted on who
was the raunchiest girl in our class,

then swore on a rusty Swiss Army knife
that none of us would ever get hitched.

We wondered about our mothers and fathers
and swapped notes on our budding sisters.

By the time the sunlight began to trickle
through the treetops, we crawled back into

our tents coughing like cranes and fell
with swollen imaginations into heavy sleep.

"Boy Scouts Camping Out" by Norbert Krapf, from Somewhere in Southern Indiana: Poems of Midwestern Origins. © Time Being Books, 1993. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of detective novelist Raymond Chandler (1888) (books by this author). He was born in Chicago, but moved to London with his mother in 1895 when his parents divorced. He stayed in England until 1912, then returned to the States to take a series of odd jobs, like sporting goods clerk, ranch hand, and accountant. He enlisted in the Canadian army during World War I, fought in the trenches, and was transferred to the Royal Air Force. In 1922, he got a bookkeeping job with the Dabney Oil Syndicate, and within 10 years he was the vice president. The following year, when he was 44, he was fired for absenteeism and drunkenness.

The oil industry's loss was detective fiction's gain. He wrote his first story, called "Blackmailers Don't Shoot," and it was published in the pulp magazine Black Mask in 1933. Over the next six years, he wrote 20 more stories and published the first of seven novels, The Big Sleep (1939). Philip Marlowe, his novels' hero, was inspired by Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade, and inspired Robert B. Parker's Spenser in turn. Chandler also worked as a screenwriter in the 1940s, turning out such film noir classics as Double Indemnity (1944), The Blue Dahlia (1946), and Strangers on a Train (1951).

It's less commonly known that his first writing was not detective fiction, but poetry. When he lived in London, he published several poems and essays in the Westminster Gazette. He later categorized his early poems as "Grade B Georgian," and though the subject matter is pretty far removed from the hard-boiled fiction he would later write, there's something of Philip Marlowe's world-weary, betrayed hero in these lines. Here's an excerpt from "When I Was King" (1909):

For I am weak as water,
  The might I made her see
Was breath of some far power
  That willed to make me free,
A moment's king of heaven,
  Too tall for one low plea.

'Tis gone, my painted temple,
  Elysium of fraud;
But she, in her despising
  Some other vessel Hawed,
May think of my Valhalla
  And me, her broken god.

On this date in 1903, the Ford Motor Company sold its first car. The first Model A went to Dr. Ernst Pfennig of Chicago, Illinois. He was a dentist, and he had placed his order for the $850 automobile the week before. The car was manufactured in Detroit, at the company's Mack Street plant. The car boasted a two-cylinder, eight-horsepower engine, and could move at speeds approaching 30 miles per hour. It had two forward gears, and one reverse. Dr. Pfennig ordered his with a tonneau, which we now know as a back seat. It was a convertible — the top didn't come standard — and it was painted red. All the original Model A's were red, in fact. The Fords that were available "in any color you want, as long as it's black" came later.

Within two months of Pfennig's order, Ford Motor Company had sold 215 cars. Within the first year, they sold almost a thousand. This was the original Model A. The next model to be produced was the Model C, which came out the following year, and then the Model T, which came out in 1908 and was sold until 1927. Ford used all the letters of the alphabet from A to T, but not all of them were manufactured and sold; most were just prototypes. After the Model T, he came up with a design so different and new that he didn't want to just move on to the letter U; he wanted to start over at the beginning of the alphabet. And so a second, and better-known, Ford automobile known as the Model A was sold from 1927 to 1931.

On this day in 1929, the Fascist government in Italy banned the use of foreign words. Regional dialects were still so prevalent when Mussolini came into power in 1922 that no more than 12 percent of the population of the unified state spoke straightforward Italian. The regime wanted to promote unity and a strong national identity, so anything that was seen to undermine these things was a cause for concern. French and English words and phrases were particularly popular; where possible, the government required the use of the Italian equivalent, and if one didn't exist, they made the foreign word as Italian as possible. Wine from Bordeaux became known as Barolo; a movie, formerly known as "il film," was now called "la pellicola."

It's the birthday of Dutch filmmaker Theodoor "Theo" van Gogh (1957). He was born in The Hague, Netherlands, and was murdered in Amsterdam in 2004. He was the great-grandson of Vincent van Gogh's brother, an art dealer, who was also named Theo. Theo the filmmaker was outspoken and opinionated, and some called him the Netherlands' version of Michael Moore. He was harshly critical of multiculturalism and political correctness; he loved to stir public debate; he always appeared in scruffy clothes; and he chain-smoked Gauloises cigarettes (his website was called "The Healthy Smoker"). His supporters called him a champion of free speech; his enemies — and they were many — called him arrogant, anti-Semitic, anti-Islam, or just plain extremist. He considered himself a misunderstood visionary.

He received death threats after his 10-minute film Submission was aired on Dutch television in August 2004. The film was a protest against domestic violence in Islamic cultures, and it showed naked women in transparent robes, with passages from the Qur'an painted all over their bodies. He didn't take the death threats seriously; according to a colleague, he said, "Nobody kills the village idiot." He refused protection, and he was killed by Mohammed Bouyeri on November 2. Bouyeri was a radical Dutch-Moroccan Muslim who had ties to terrorist groups; he shot van Gogh eight times, tried to decapitate him, and stabbed him in the chest, leaving a five-page letter pinned to the body by the knife.

Today is the birthday of Indian author Vikram Chandra (1961) (books by this author). He was born in New Delhi; his father is a retired executive, and his mother is a screenwriter and playwright. Chandra remembers her saying to her children many times, "The only reason I can do my writing is because your father supports me." She wanted her children to have more lucrative — or at least, more stable — careers. Chandra said, "And so for us that was a huge question: how are you going to live? In India you could literally starve as an artist."

By the time he was about 12, Chandra was a fan of Isaac Asimov, and filled notebooks with his own science fiction stories. Soon he discovered Fitzgerald and Hemingway. "Reading The Great Gatsby at age 15 in India, I knew nothing — I had no context for it, social or symbolic — and it still blew me away, it was so beautiful." He got the idea that he wanted to move to the United States and study creative writing. Though his parents' friends thought they were crazy, they agreed to come up with the money to send him to California, and he got a degree in English from Pomona College.

His first manuscript, which eventually became the novel Red Earth and Pouring Rain (1995), wasn't popular with his fellow graduate writing students at the University of Houston. "It was 1987 when all the minimalist stuff was in vogue, and suddenly here I am with all these Indian gods making pronouncements," he told the UC Berkeley News. "They'd say, 'This is melodrama,' and I would answer, 'I know, but I like melodrama; we Indians do melodrama.'" The novel was followed by a collection of short stories: Love and Longing in Bombay (1997). His latest novel is 2006's Sacred Games. He's been compared to Michael Ondaatje, Salman Rushdie, Gabriel García Márquez, and Raymond Chandler.

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