Jul. 17, 2012

Woman Feeding Chickens

by Roy Scheele

Her hand is at the feedbag at her waist,
sunk to the wrist in the rustling grain
that nuzzles her fingertips when laced
around a sifting handful. It's like rain,
like cupping water in your hand, she thinks,
the cracks between the fingers like a sieve,
except that less escapes you through the chinks
when handling grain. She likes to feel it give
beneath her hand's slow plummet, and the smell,
so rich a fragrance she has never quite
got used to it, under the seeming spell
of the charm of the commonplace. The white
hens bunch and strut, heads cocked, with tilted eyes,
till her hand sweeps out and the small grain flies.

"Woman Feeding Chickens" by Roy Scheele, from A Far Allegiance. © The Backwaters Press, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this date in 1867, Harvard Dental School, the first university-based dental school in the United States was founded. Before the school's founding, aspiring dentists went to freestanding trade schools or learned by apprenticeship. The world's first dental training program had been founded in Baltimore in 1840, but dentistry wasn't considered a branch of medicine, and programs were not included in curricula. Harvard Dental School represented a dramatic change in the way dentistry was viewed.

Prior to the 19th century, your treatment options were extremely limited: If you had a toothache, you went to the barber-surgeon — or even the blacksmith — to have the tooth pulled, with no anesthesia. The wealthy could afford to have the gap filled with a replacement tooth, which could be bought from someone who was willing to sell his or her own teeth. If you didn't want to pay the premium price, you could buy the teeth of a cadaver. Sometimes these were collected from battlefields, and were called "Waterloo teeth." A grave robber could get five guineas for a good set of corpse teeth. But buying replacement human teeth came with risks, too: You might contract tuberculosis or syphilis. Some people had dentures made from ivory, porcelain, or even gold. After Charles Goodyear invented the vulcanization of rubber, you could buy "Vulcanite" dentures made of hard rubber. By the middle of the 19th century, dentists were beginning to use nitrous oxide, chloroform, and ether to perform oral surgery painlessly.

On this date in 1917, England's King George V changed the royal surname to "Windsor." Traditionally, the Royals didn't have a surname, and they took the name of their House, or dynastic name, from the male line. Queen Victoria — of the House of Hanover — had married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, a German prince; their successors then bore the name of "Saxe-Coburg and Gotha."

But by 1917, World War I had been raging for three years, anti-German sentiment was high, and the royal family's close ties with Germany became a sore point. When German heavy aircraft called the "Gotha" began dropping bombs on London in March, Victoria and Albert's grandson, George V, made a royal proclamation, stating: "We [...] do hereby declare [...] that as from the date [...] Our House and Family shall be [...] known as the House and Family of Windsor, and that all the descendants in the male line of Our said Grandmother Queen Victoria [...] shall bear the said Name of Windsor." George V chose the name after Windsor Castle, which had been a royal residence for 800 years.

The German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, was also Queen Victoria's grandson. He took the news of his cousin's name change in stride, joking that he was looking forward to seeing Shakespeare's play The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.

It's the birthday of Erle Stanley Gardner (books by this author), born in Malden, Massachusetts (1889). He's the author of more than 80 mystery novels featuring the trial lawyer Perry Mason, who was "broad-shouldered and rugged-faced, and his eyes were steady and patient." The first of these books was The Case of the Velvet Claws (1933). Mason was so brilliant that he was not only able to get his client off the hook, he also tracked down the real guilty party. In addition to the dozens of novels, the character spawned a radio show, a couple of television series, and some movies. Gardner's Perry Mason books have sold more than 300 million copies; he once submitted a manuscript to an editor with a cover letter that read: "It's a damned good story. If you have any comments, write them on the back of a check."

It's the birthday of "the funniest woman in the world": comedienne and actress Phyllis Diller (books by this author), born in Lima, Ohio (1917). She didn't start her career in stand-up comedy until she was middle-aged, after spending much of her life as a housewife, telling jokes and doing impersonations. At the Laundromat, she would tell other housewives, "I bury a lot of my ironing in the backyard" and, "Housework can't kill you, but why take a chance?"

In her shows, she caricatured the frumpy housewife and appeared on stage with outrageous makeup and wild hair that she claimed she combed with an electric toothbrush. She routinely used a cigarette holder, though she did not smoke, and wore a fur scarf that she insisted she trapped under the kitchen sink at her home. One of her trademarks was her distinctive braying laugh. Diller herself said: "My own laugh is the real thing and I've had it all my life. My father used to call me the laughing hyena. Like a yawn or a mood, it's infectious, and that's a great plus for a comic, but I don't just turn it on like some of today's performers. In fact, during the early stages of my career, it was a nervous laugh. I was scared out of my mind. The sweat ran down my back into my shoes."

She appeared regularly on television and played a role in the film Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number! (1966) alongside Bob Hope, who invited her to go on his USO tour of Vietnam that same year. In 2003, she donated her "gag file" to the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History; it's a filing cabinet with 48 drawers, containing more than 50,000 individual jokes and gags typed on index cards. Diller is the author of several books, including the memoir Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse (2005). Just this last May, her hometown of Lima, Ohio, presented her with its very first "lifetime achievement award."

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