Sep. 2, 2011

Green Pear Tree in September

by Freya Manfred

On a hill overlooking the Rock River
my father's pear tree shimmers,
in perfect peace,
covered with hundreds of ripe pears
with pert tops, plump bottoms,
and long curved leaves.
Until the green-haloed tree
rose up and sang hello,
I had forgotten...
He planted it twelve years ago,
when he was seventy-three,
so that in September
he could stroll down
with the sound of the crickets
rising and falling around him,
and stand, naked to the waist,
slightly bent, sucking juice
from a ripe pear.

"Green Pear Tree in September" by Freya Manfred, from My Only Home. © Red Dragonfly Press, 2003. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Great Fire of London started on this date in 1666. The fire broke out near London Bridge, at the house of Thomas Farynor, the king's baker. One of his workers awoke at two in the morning to the smell of smoke, and the family fled over the rooftops. The blaze spread rapidly, helped by strong winds and drought conditions, and the mayor, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, was awakened with the news an hour later. He wasn't unduly worried. "A woman might piss it out," he reportedly said, and went back to bed. Samuel Pepys, who lived nearby, took matters into his own hands and went to Whitehall to inform King Charles II of the situation. Pepys then went home to evacuate his own household and join the throngs of escaping Londoners choking the streets and the River Thames. He reported digging a hole to bury "[his] Parmazan cheese as well as [his] wine and some other things," and contemplated ways to slow or stop the blaze. "Blowing up houses ... stopped the fire when it was done, bringing down the houses in the same places they stood, and then it was easy to quench what little fire was in it."

It was the worst fire in London's history. It burned for four days and destroyed 80 percent of the city: most civic buildings, more than 13,000 homes, and nearly 90 churches, including St. Paul's Cathedral, whose lead roof melted and flowed away down Ludgate Hill. A catastrophic fire of this sort was inevitable, really; the buildings were made of timber and pitch, and the lanes were narrow and crowded; overhanging upper stories nearly touched their counterparts across the way. Remarkably, there were only four reported casualties, although the death toll was probably much higher. There was one positive outcome from the fire, though: It may have halted the progress of the plague, which had been ravaging the city for the past few years. The rats and their disease-carrying fleas perished in large numbers.

Within days of the fire, architects Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, and diarist John Evelyn, had all submitted plans for the rebuilding of the city; all of them called for making the streets more regular. In the end, almost all the original layout of the city was preserved, although the streets were widened. Wren was given the task of rebuilding 50 of the churches, including St. Paul's Cathedral, which remains one of his masterpieces.

Today is the birthday of humorist and Southern Baptist minister Grady Nutt (books by this author), born in Amarillo, Texas, in 1934. He was the oldest of four kids, and a licensed minister by the age of 13, and went to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He became popular as a public speaker, and he soon caught the attention of Ralph Edwards, a game-show producer. He began appearing on The Mike Douglas Show and was cast as a regular on the variety program Hee Haw. He wrote several hymns and a few books, including an autobiography called So Good, So Far (1979). He also released some comedy records and a gospel album, and he filmed the pilot for a sitcom called The Grady Nutt Show (1981). He was killed in 1982 when his chartered plane crashed immediately after take-off.

He wrote, "Laughter is the hand of God on the shoulder of a troubled world."

Today is the birthday of the Canadian founder of Cirque du Soleil: Guy Laliberté, born in Quebec City (1959). Time described him as "puckish," and Forbes estimates his net worth at $2.5 billion. His résumé lists skills like accordion playing, stilt walking, and fire eating. He formed an acrobatic troupe out of a band of street buskers in 1984, with the support of a grant from the provincial government of Quebec; it was originally set up as a one-year project but the government asked him to take it on tour. There are now 22 different Cirque du Soleil shows, employing 5,000 people and being performed all over the world; there are six of them currently running in Las Vegas alone. The latest Cirque productions include Iris, an alternate history of the movies, which is the first permanent show in Los Angeles; Zarkana, about a magician who has lost his magic; and Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour, which begins its tour in Montreal this fall.

He became the seventh space tourist — and the first space clown — in 2009, when he blasted off to deliver red noses to the International Space Station. He spent 12 days in space and paid $35 million for the opportunity. He did it to promote his ONE DROP Foundation and raise awareness of the world's shortage of clean water. Earlier this year, he published Gaia (2011), a book of photographs that he took from space.

He said: "I am blessed for what I have, but I believed in it from the beginning. Today, the dream is the same: I still want to travel, I still want to entertain, and I most certainly still want to have fun."

Swissair flight 111 crashed near Nova Scotia on this date in 1998. The MD-11 jet was en route from New York to Geneva when the pilot issued a distress call of "Pan-Pan-Pan," which means the situation is urgent, but not an emergency ("Mayday"). The pilot reported smoke in the cockpit and requested permission to land as soon as possible. Air traffic control directed the craft to land in Halifax, but they were too high, so the pilot circled back around over the ocean in an effort to lose altitude. He also requested to dump fuel. The last transmission — "We are declaring an emergency ... we have to land immediately" — occurred at 10:24 p.m.; the jet crashed into the ocean at 10:31 p.m. at a speed of almost 350 miles per hour, and shattered on impact.

The investigation of the crash took four years; the plane had lost power six minutes before impact, so the flight data recorders also shut off. The investigators had to re-create the last six minutes of the flight based on physical evidence alone. Eventually, they determined that 11 factors may have caused or contributed to the crash. The chief cause was flammable materials used in the construction of the plane, which had allowed a cabin fire — which may have been started by sparking wires in the in-flight entertainment system — to spread faster than the crew could contain it.

Flight 111 was often called the U.N. shuttle because it was so popular with members of the United Nations flying home from New York. On this ill-fated flight were several notable scientists, diplomats, and executives. A member of the Saudi royal family, the cousin of the Queen of Iran, and the son of boxer Jake LaMotta were also on board.

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