Aug. 6, 2012


by Peter Serchuk

             for my father

We wore fedora hats
and ate nickel sandwiches,
played johnny-on-the-pony
and pitched copper pennies.
We worked all day, dreamed
of marrying saints and after
hours ran straight up to Harlem.

It was a good time to be a man,
a good time to know your way
around the block and a dollar.
Once you knew who lived where
and why you had friends
for life and rules to live by.
Bright Eyes owned the bar on
President Street. He only let his
sister in after hours. Even with a mop
in her hands she smelled like chocolate
and flowers and made you dream
about her dress on a hanger.

The war was still a world away
and Brooklyn still a world of its own.
Friday nights we'd take the train to
Ebbets Field or maybe split a cab
to Coney Island. From the top of
the Steeplechase you could fly across
Queens, or scratch your back on
the Empire State Building.

Only the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts
were rich. The rest of us shuffled
ends and means, drove our trucks,
stitched our seams and gave our ears
and our pay to Mr. Roosevelt's plans.
"I like his voice," Bright Eyes' sister
said, wiping her hands on the back
of her jeans. Not much for politics,
I stared anyway. The right girl could
change your mind about anything.

"Heyday" by Peter Serchuk, from All That Remains. © WordTech Editions, 2012. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of Sir Alexander Fleming, the bacteriologist who discovered the antibacterial properties of penicillin. He was born in Lochfield, Scotland, in 1881. He came into his lab one morning in 1928 to discover he'd left the lid off of a petri dish containing a Staphylococcus culture. The culture had become contaminated by a blue-green mold, and Fleming noted that right around the moldy spots, the bacteria were no longer growing. He isolated the mold and determined it was Penicillium notatum. His first thought was that it would be useful as a surface disinfectant, and he later proved that it was effective against bacterial influenza. He later said, "One sometimes finds what one is not looking for."

It's the birthday of the Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (books by this author), born in Lincolnshire, England, in 1809. He's one of the most popular poets in the English language, and was one of the last poets to sell as many books as a novelist. At his peak, he was one of the most famous people in England — possibly behind only Queen Victoria and the prime minister. His house was a tourist attraction, and his fans lined up outside at all hours of the day and night. He was made a lord in 1884, when he was 75, and he was the only member of the House of Lords to be there solely on the basis of literary merit.

Tennyson gave us some of the most familiar lines in English poetry, including "'Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all" and "Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do or die." And last year, in Britain, his words "to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield" won a public competition called "Winning Words." They'll be engraved on a wall in Olympic Village, where they will no doubt inspire athletes in this summer's Olympic Games in London.

Today is the birthday of writer Charles Fort (books by this author), born in Albany, New York (1874). He loved to collect stories about things that the scientists couldn't explain: UFOs, frogs falling from the sky, spontaneous human combustion, and poltergeists. He felt that paranormal theories were just as likely to be true as any scientific ones, and that scientists were just as irrationally devoted to their beliefs as any fanatic.

Fort wrote many novels, but burned most of them during fits of depression. Two of his books, titled X and Y, caught the attention of Theodore Dreiser. Dreiser tried and failed to get them published, and Fort burned those too. But Dreiser did succeed in getting another book published: It was The Book of the Damned (1919), and in it Fort had collected dozens of anecdotes about things that science couldn't explain. The "damned" in the title refers to data that Fort claimed science was ignoring. He didn't necessarily believe that the paranormal phenomena in his book were real, but he mocked scientists for their inability to explain them. And now many people refer to any number of weird and unexplained happenings as "Fortean phenomena."

One of his friends, Tiffany Thayer, organized the Fortean Society, hoping to encourage other like-minded people to question and challenge scientific conclusions. Fort himself was opposed to the society. He was afraid it would attract crackpots, and it probably did, but it also attracted writers like Dreiser, H.L. Mencken, Sherwood Anderson, and Booth Tarkington.

The first execution by electric chair happened on this date in 1890. For almost 10 years, the state of New York had been looking for a more humane method of capital punishment to replace hanging. Alfred Southwick, a dentist from Buffalo, was on the committee. He's the first one to suggest using electric current, because he'd heard a story about a man who had accidentally touched an exposed power line and died quickly and painlessly.

The development of the electric chair was taking place right in the middle of the decade-long "War of Currents" currently raging in the new field of electrical power. Thomas Edison preferred direct current; Edison's rivals, including George Westinghouse, favored alternating current. The two factions battled over which current was more effective and safe. When word got out that the state was considering using electricity for capital punishment, Edison quickly realized that no one would want the same kind of current running through their homes that was also being used to execute convicted felons. So he proclaimed that Westinghouse's alternating current should be used for the electric chair because it was so clearly lethal. Harold Brown, an Edison employee, was hired to design a chair to restrain the condemned and deliver the fatal shock through alternating current. The committee selected the Edison design. Edison's smear campaign against Westinghouse was so successful that, even though Westinghouse protested the electric chair, refused to supply any AC generators, and funded the appeals of death row inmates, being "Westinghoused" became a euphemism for death by electrocution.

The chair's first victim was William Kemmler. The execution wasn't an immediate success. The "state electrician" only gave Kemmler enough juice to knock him out, so they had to try again, but it took a while for the generator to build up enough power to deliver the lethal voltage. The execution took about eight minutes, and Westinghouse later said, "They would have done better using an axe."

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