Sep. 11, 2012

At the County Fair, 1956

by Charles Darling

For a nickel, a machine
called An Expression of Faith
would take your dime
and squash it.
All tubes and gears and lights,
the thing would groan, squeak,
fart, smoke, and finally drop
a little silver oval in your hands,
hot as a pistol,
with Jesus's face on one side
and the Lord's Prayer on the other.
I took my medallion
home for Grandma,
but she wouldn't keep it
because it was Catholic
and had "trespasses"
instead of "debts"
and left out the part
about the kingdom
and the power and the glory.
She gave it back
and I went downtown
and set it on the railroad track.
And after the train went by
I had a piece of silver
smooth as glass and that
says something about
power and glory, by God.

"At the County Fair, 1956" by Charles Darling, from The Saints of Diminished Capacity. © Second Wind Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this date in 1941, ground was broken for the Pentagon Building in Arlington, Virginia. In July of that year, Brigadier General and engineer Brehon B. Somervell had summoned two of his subordinates and told them to draw up plans for an office building to house 40,000 War Department workers; it should be four stories tall, he told them, and cover 4 million square feet. He gave them their assignment on Thursday afternoon, and said he wanted the plans on his desk by Monday. They delivered, and construction began two months later. Sixteen months later, the Pentagon was complete.

Sixty years to the day after the groundbreaking, on September 11, 2001, a passenger jet piloted by terrorist hijackers crashed into the Pentagon, killing all aboard the jet and more than a hundred people inside the building itself. The jet crashed into a wing that was being remodeled, so many of the offices were unoccupied; otherwise, the death toll would have been much higher.

The Hope Diamond was stolen on this date in 1792. At that time, it was known as the French Blue. The dark blue gemstone came from a mine in India, and was originally about 112 carats. France's King Louis XIV bought it from a traveling merchant in 1668, and had it re-cut into a 67-carat heart shape. The king wore it on a ribbon around his neck for state occasions. But on this date in 1792, during the French Revolution, the royal treasury was looted, the crown jewels were stolen, and the diamond lost. It turned up in London 20 years later.

The Hope Diamond is rumored to be cursed. It's said that the traveling merchant who sold it to Louis XIV had stolen it from a statue of a Hindu idol; he was later torn apart by wild dogs, or so the legend goes. Subsequent owners have suffered financial ruin, personal tragedies, and violent deaths. Much of the legend can be traced back to Pierre Cartier; he spun tales of a curse to tempt Evalyn Walsh McLean, a young and eccentric socialite. Cartier had sold her expensive gems in the past, and hoped to sell her the Hope Diamond as well, but she didn't care for the setting and she was playing hard to get. So he put the stone in a new setting and gave it a sinister history, and she bought all of it for $180,000. It now rests in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Today is the birthday of William Sydney Porter, better known as O. Henry (books by this author), born in Greensboro, North Carolina (1862). He's the author of the beloved short stories "The Gift of the Magi" and "The Ransom of Red Chief," and he became a writer while serving time in a federal prison for embezzlement. He was sentenced to five years, but was let out after three for good behavior; during his incarceration he published 14 stories, and wrote about 400 more upon his release.

O. Henry said: "You can't write a story that's got any life in it by sitting at a writing table and thinking. You've got to get out into the streets, into the crowds, talk with people, and feel the rush and throb of real life — that's the stimulant for a story writer."

It's the birthday of novelist and poet D.H. Lawrence (books by this author), David Herbert Lawrence, born in Eastwood, England, on this day in 1885. He is the author of Sons and Lovers (1913), The Rainbow (1915), Women in Love (1920), and Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928). He believed that to write authentically about the human condition, authors needed to be able to write explicitly about sex. So he waged a constant battle with the censors. One British critic called Lady Chatterley's Lover "the most evil outpouring that has ever besmirched the literature of our country."

D.H. Lawrence wrote: "No form of love is wrong, so long as it is love, and you yourself honour what you are doing. Love has an extraordinary variety of forms! And that is all that there is in life, it seems to me."

Today is the birthday of English author and muckraking journalist Jessica Mitford (books by this author), born in Burford, Oxfordshire (1917). She was one of the six aristocratic Mitford sisters, who became known for various pursuits, like writing, managing large country estates, or marrying politicians. They were raised in a right-wing family, and two of the sisters became fervent fascists, but Jessica and her sister Nancy went the other way and became socialists; they even toyed with the idea of assassinating Hitler. She later wrote: "Unfortunately, my will to live was too strong for me actually to carry out this scheme, which would have been fully practical and might have changed the course of history. Years later, when the horrifying history of Hitler and his regime had been completely unfolded, leaving Europe half-destroyed, I often bitterly regretted my lack of courage."

In 1963, she published her best-known work, The American Way of Death. It was an exposé of the funeral industry, and she co-wrote it with her husband, American civil rights lawyer Robert Treuhaft. The book prompted congressional hearings on the industry's unscrupulous business practices. She also wrote two memoirs: Hons and Rebels (1960) and A Fine Old Conflict (1977).

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