Aug. 19, 2012


by Donald Hall

When I visited as a boy, too young for chores,
a pair of maples flared before the farmhouse.
My grandfather made me a swing, dangling
rope from stout branches. I hurtled
between them high as I could, pumping
out half the day while my mind daydreamed
the joy of no school, no camp, no blocks
of other children fighting childhood's wars.
With the old people I listened to radio news
of Japanese in Nanking, Madrid on fire,
Hitler's brownshirts heiling. The hurricane
of 1938 ripped down the older maple.

When I was twelve and could work the fields,
my grandfather and I, with Riley the horse,
took four days to clear the acres of hay
from the fields on both sides of the house.
With a scythe I trimmed the uncut grass
around boulders and trees, by stone walls,
and raked every blade to one of Riley's piles.
My grandfather pitched hay onto the wagon
where I climbed to load it, fitting it tight.
We left the fields behind as neat as lawns.
When I moved back to the house at forty,
a neighbor's machine took alfalfa down
in an afternoon. Next morning, engines
with huge claws grappled round green bales
onto trucks, leaving loose hay scattered
and grass standing at the field's margin.

A solitary maple still rises. Seventy years
after my grandfather hung the swing,
maple branches snap from the old tree.
I tear out dead limbs for next year's sake,
fearing the wind and ice storms of winter,
fearing broken trees, cities, and hipbones.

"Maples" by Donald Hall, from The Back Chamber. © Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of Gene Roddenberry, born in El Paso, Texas (1921). He was working as a TV writer and producer at NBC when, in 1964, he got the idea for a new series about space exploration — "a Wagon Train to the stars," as he described it — and shopped it around to several studios, most of which were uninterested. Desilu Productions finally expressed an interest, and NBC agreed to air it. The pilot of his new show, Star Trek, about the voyages of the Starship Enterprise and its crew, aired on September 8, 1966. Roddenberry's wife, Majel Barrett, provided the voice for the Enterprise's computer. Ratings were never great, and it only aired for three seasons, but it was a huge success in syndication and kicked off a major science fiction franchise.

Star Trek was the first sci-fi series to depict a generally peaceful future, and that came from Roddenberry's fundamental optimism about the human race. "It speaks to some basic human needs," he said in 1991, "that there is a tomorrow — it's not all going to be over in a big flash and a bomb, that the human race is improving, that we have things to be proud of as humans. No, ancient astronauts did not build the pyramids — human beings built them because they're clever and they work hard. And Star Trek is about those things."

Roddenberry died in 1991 and, with his widow's permission, his ashes were carried on a 1992 mission of the space shuttle Columbia. Roddenberry's son, Rod, recently produced a documentary about his father's life; it's called Trek Nation.

Today is the birthday of memoirist Frank McCourt (books by this author), born in Brooklyn, New York (1930). He was the oldest of seven children born to an Irish immigrant couple, and they moved back to Limerick when McCourt was four years old, after the death of his baby sister. His childhood was marked by poverty, the deaths of half of his siblings, and his father's alcoholism.

He went back to America when he was 19, and eventually served in the Korean War. After the war, he went to college at New York University on the GI Bill, even though he never graduated from high school, and he became a high school English teacher in New York City. He wanted to write a memoir for years, but he was too angry and bitter. Finally, while listening to his young granddaughter playing, he realized he had to write it from the viewpoint of his child self. And that became his best-selling book, Angela's Ashes (1996).

Today is the birthday of aircraft pioneer Orville Wright, born in Dayton, Ohio (1871). Of the two Wright brothers, Orville was younger, and he was the mischievous one, the adventurous one, while Wilbur was a meticulous researcher and introvert. And though Orville wasn't that interested in school — and was expelled from elementary school on one occasion — none of the Wright children lacked encouragement or opportunity for study at home. Orville Wright once said, of their childhood, "We were lucky enough to grow up in an environment where there was always much encouragement to children to pursue intellectual interests; to investigate whatever aroused curiosity."

Orville succeeded his brother as head of the Wright Company upon Wilbur's death from typhoid fever in 1912, but he didn't enjoy the business world, and sold the company a few years later. He retired from business and served on the advisory panels of several boards and agencies, including the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the predecessor of NASA.

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




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