Jan. 21, 2014

Fictional Characters

by Danusha Laméris

Do they ever want to escape?
Climb out of the white pages
and enter our world?

Holden Caulfield slipping in the movie theater
to catch the two o'clock
Anna Karenina sitting in a diner,
reading the paper as the waitress
serves up a cheeseburger.

Even Hector, on break from the Iliad,
takes a stroll through the park,
admires the tulips.

Maybe they grew tired
of the author's mind,
all its twists and turns.

Or were finally weary
of stumbling around Pamplona,
a bottle in each fist,
eating lotuses on the banks of the Nile.

For others, it was just too hot
in the small California town
where they'd been written into
a lifetime of plowing fields.

Whatever the reason,
here they are, roaming the city streets
rain falling on their phantasmal shoulders.

Wouldn't you, if you could?
Step out of your own story,
to lean against a doorway
of the Five & Dime, sipping your coffee,

your life, somewhere far behind you,
all its heat and toil nothing but a tale
resting in the hands of a stranger,
the sidewalk ahead wet and glistening.

"Fictional Characters" by Danusha Laméris from The Moons of August. © Autumn House Press, 2014. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1977, President Jimmy Carter issued an official pardon to Vietnam War draft dodgers. It was the day after his inauguration. He said: "One of the things I did was among the most controversial I ever did. And that was to pardon the so-called draft dodgers who escaped into Canada. And I did that before I ever began to walk down toward the Oval Office. [...] I knew I was going to do it. A lot of people were families of those men who went to Canada and they wanted to come back home. So I just issued a blanket pardon for them. I got some criticism, obviously, because a lot of folks thought the draft dodgers should be executed for treason and so forth."

An estimated 210,000 men were accused of draft violations, and about 25,000 of them were indicted. Many never registered for the draft at all. Tens of thousands of Americans left the country during the Vietnam War, most of them to Canada, although no one knows the exact number — Canadian officials didn't ask immigrants about their draft status or keep records. Others fled to Mexico, or Sweden, or went underground in the United States. Some left after their draft numbers came up, some preempted the draft and left, and still others were students exempt from the draft but who left as a symbol of opposition to the war.

The pardon meant that the United States could not prosecute those who hadn't registered or those who had unlawfully resisted the draft. However, the government did not pardon those who had deserted or been dishonorably discharged, or protesters who had engaged in any violence. Carter's pardon was criticized from both directions. Many people, including veterans groups, were dismayed that draft dodgers wouldn't be fully punished. Civil liberties groups wanted to see deserters given full reprieve.

Despite the pardon, thousands of draft dodgers remained in Canada. They went on to become architects, lawyers, musicians, professors, reporters, and even officials in the Canadian government. In the 1970s, a senior aide to Canada's Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau hired a draft dodger for a top cabinet position, and felt no need to mention that information to the Prime Minister. The aide said: "He was cleared by security, he had Canadian citizenship by then, and he had not committed any Canadian crime."

One famous draft dodger was jazz musician Bill King. During the Vietnam War, he was living in New York and working as the music director for Janis Joplin's band. Four days after getting married, his draft number was called. He reported for duty on a day of national anti-war protests, so when he showed up at Fort Dix in New Jersey, everyone was on high alert. Twice the military police pulled King over and hassled him for having too much facial hair. He was leaving on a 5 a.m. flight for Saigon, but the guesthouse was full so they refused to let his wife spend the night with him. King decided in that moment to leave for Canada. He and his wife were smuggled out of the base under blankets by a sympathetic young man, and from there they hitchhiked to Canada. King went on to work with many of the leading rock and jazz musicians of his day, publish the international magazine The Jazz Report, and serve as artistic director for the Toronto Beaches Jazz Festival.

American men could be drafted at the age of 18, but they couldn't vote until they were 21. For decades, this imbalance had been a rallying cry for those who supported lowering the voting age, but nothing much happened until the Vietnam era, when anti-war marches were filled with the slogan: "Old Enough to Fight, Old Enough to Vote!" In 1971, the 26th Amendment to the Constitution lowered the voting age to 18.

It's the birthday of blues singer and songwriter Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter (sometimes noted as January 20 or January 29), born in Mooringsport, Louisiana (1888). He's best known for his songs "Goodnight Irene," "Midnight Special," and "Rock Island Line," and for his skill in playing 12-string guitar. He was an inmate at Angola Prison in Louisiana when a white man named John Lomax arrived with his 18-year-old son, Alan, asking to record any songs the prisoners knew. Lomax was traveling across the South making field recordings for the Library of Congress. Lomax helped Leadbelly obtain a pardon and took him to New York where he was a big hit. Alan Lomax said that Lead Belly "Sang the blues wonderfully, but he was much bigger than that. He encompassed the whole black era, from square dance calls to the blues of the 30s and 40s."

France's King Louis XVI was beheaded in Paris on this date in 1793, one of tens of thousands of victims of the French Revolution. He had ascended to the throne in 1774, when he was 20 years old, and he had inherited a mess. The kingdom was nearly bankrupt, the result of lavish spending by his predecessors. He was well liked by his subjects at first, although they were unhappy with his wife, Marie Antoinette of Austria, because she was a foreigner. He was intelligent and compassionate, but he was indecisive, and conservative in military action.

By 1788, the unemployment rate in Paris was approaching 50 percent. Crops were failing and food prices were skyrocketing. Crippling bouts of depression left the king unable to make important decisions. The Estates-General, which was a national legislative assembly, curtailed his powers to such a degree that he was virtually under house arrest. He and his family attempted an escape in 1791, but were captured; in 1792, the newly elected National Convention declared France a republic, and formally arrested the king for treason. He was indicted in December, tried and convicted on January 15, 1793, and sentenced to death by guillotine on January 20, with the sentence to be carried out the next day. He spent his last evening with his family.

The former king arose early, around five o'clock, on the cold, wet morning of January 21. Louis's valet helped him dress, and he was brought to an Irish priest, Henry Essex Edgeworth, who heard his last confession and administered the Mass. By eight, he was brought to a green carriage in the courtyard of the Temple prison; he asked Father Edgeworth to accompany him, and the two men took their seats in the carriage, opposite a pair of gendarmes, for the two-hour ride to the Place de la Révolution. They recited psalms together as the carriage moved in procession, led by drummers to drown out any expressions of support for the king. Citizens armed with pikes and guns lined the procession's route, shouting epithets.

The king stepped out of the carriage and removed his outer garments, refusing any offers of help, and folded them neatly. The gendarmes made a move to bind his hands, but Louis recoiled, and a struggle seemed imminent, until Father Edgeworth reminded him that Jesus had suffered his hands to be bound on Good Friday. Louis said, "So be it, then, that too, my God," and offered his hands to be bound. He ascended the steps to the scaffold alone, with strength and determination. Upon reaching the top, he addressed the people:

"I die innocent of all the crimes laid to my charge; I pardon those who have occasioned my death; and I pray to God that the blood you are going to shed may never be visited on France."

He would have said more, but a man on horseback called for the drums, and the crowd called for the execution, which was hastily carried out. A young guard picked up the severed head and promenaded it around the scaffold. The silence was broken with a cry of "Vive la République!" and thousands began cheering the death of the king.

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