May 29, 2012

Key to the Highway

by Mark Halliday

I remember riding somewhere in a fast car
with my brother and his friend Jack Brooks
and we were listening to Layla & Other Love Songs
by Derek & the Dominos. The night was dark,
dark all along the highway. Jack Brooks was
a pretty funny guy, and I was delighted
by the comradely interplay between him and my brother,
but I tried not to show it for fear of inhibiting them.
I tried to be reserved and maintain a certain
dignity appropriate to my age, older by four years.
They knew the Dominos album well having played the cassette
many times, and they knew how much they liked it.
As we rode on in the dark I felt the music was,
after all, wonderful, and I said so
with as much dignity as possible. "That's right,"
said my brother. "You're getting smarter," said Jack.
We were listening to "Bell Bottom Blues"
at that moment. Later we were listening to
"Key to the Highway," and I remember how
my brother said, "Yeah, yeah." And Jack sang
one of the lines in a way that made me laugh.
I am upset by the fact that that night is so absolutely gone.
No, "upset" is too strong. Or is it.
But that night is so obscure—until now
I may not have thought of that ride once
in eight years—and this obscurity troubles me.
Death is going to defeat us all so easily.
Jack Brooks is in Florida, I believe,
and I may never see him again, which is
more or less all right with me; he and my brother
lost touch some years ago. I wonder
where we were going that night. I don't know;
but it seemed as if we had the key to the highway.

"Key to the Highway" by Mark Halliday, from Little Star. © William Marrow & Co., 1987. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the writer who said, "The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected." G. K. Chesterton (books by this author), born in London (1874). He stood at 6 foot, 4 inches and was nearly 300 pounds. As a fiction writer, his popular "Father Brown" detective stories later inspired Alfred Hitchcock. He went about town in a cape and chomping on a cigar, getting lost and sending telegrams to his wife to ask where he was supposed to be. Chesterton also liked to make fun of himself; when someone asked during the war why he wasn't out at the Front, he replied, "If you go round to the side, you will see that I am."

On this day in 1914, Edgar Lee Masters (books by this author) published the first poem of what would later be published as The Spoon River Anthology (1915). Masters was a lawyer in Chicago when he began writing short poems about the townspeople of "Spoon River," a fictional place he based on his hometown of Lewiston, Illinois. Afraid that the people in Lewiston would take offense to his unflattering characterization, he published all 244 of his free-verse poems individually and then as a book under the pseudonym Webster Ford. It was an immediate commercial success. But the monologues were often cynical and showed the hypocrisies of small-town life, making Masters an outcast from the small towns where he grew up. He also hadn't changed the last names of several characters, and many residents were outraged by his unflattering depictions of them. Still, The Spoon River Anthology becameone of the best selling books of poetry in American history. Remarking on the anthology, Ezra Pound said, "At last the American West has produced a poet strong enough to weather the climate, capable of dealing with life directly, without circumlocution, without resonant meaningless phrases."

It's the birthday of the writer known as Max Brand (books by this author), born Frederick Faust in Seattle, Washington (1892). Brand was one of several pseudonyms he used over a career that produced thrillers, love stories, and melodramas, but it was the Western he became famous for, even though he knew nothing firsthand about frontier life. He is best known for his novel Destry Rides Again (1930), which was later made into a movie staring Marlene Dietrich and James Stewart.

During the Great Depression, he was one of the highest-paid pulp fiction writers in America, earning five cents a word. He managed to finish a full-length novel every week, making about $100,000 a year at that rate. As time went by he was ashamed of his novels, and he only used his real name to publish poems. The pseudonyms were originally born of practicality; after WWI he was afraid that Americans wouldn't want to read books by a person with a German last name. When World War II began, he called in favors to get himself posted as a correspondent for Harper's, hoping to finally serve as he'd dreamed of doing years before. He was sent to the front lines, and he died of a shrapnel wound in Italy among soldiers who'd grown up reading his stories.

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




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