Jan. 30, 2014

The Reunion

by Jack Ridl

The last time I saw them we were young.
Ginny was a cheerleader. Ben was getting
A's in trig. Tonight we glance at nametags.
Around the cheese tray, we say, "Of course

I remember you." "Yes, four years ago.
Things are better now." "No, she never
graduated, moved. I don't know where."

We look good. The food is just fine. The music
brings it all back, and we dance the latest steps
across our brain's prom floor. It's all the same.

And nothing is. We're still dumb kids, just gray
and tame. If we had it to do again, we'd get it
right. Some are sure they got it right the first

time. They ask for another Manhattan, dry
martini, scotch on the rocks. They glisten
in their tans. They watch the rest of us,

the ones with comb-overs, two divorces,
the ones who look for lower gas prices,
a good night's sleep, group tours.

"The Reunion" by Jack Ridl from Practicing to Walk Like a Heron. © Wayne State University Press, 2013. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the novelist and short-story writer Shirley Hazzard (books by this author), born in Sydney, Australia (1931). She's best known for her novel The Transit of Venus (1980), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award.

It's the birthday of historian and author Barbara Tuchman (books by this author), born Barbara Wertheim in New York City (1912). She's best known for her book The Guns of August (1962), a history of the outbreak of World War I. She said her number one rule as a writer of history was, "Above all, discard the irrelevant."

It's the birthday of poet and novelist Richard Brautigan (books by this author), born in Tacoma, Washington (1935). He wrote Trout Fishing in America (1967), his best-known work, on a portable typewriter while sitting alongside the many trout streams. He committed suicide in 1984, two years after the publication of his last novel, So The Wind Won't Blow It Away (1984). He was famous for his whimsical, surrealist style. He wrote: "The sun was like a huge 50-cent piece that someone had poured kerosene on and then had lit with a match, and said, 'Here, hold this while I go get a newspaper,' and put the coin in my hand, but never came back."

It was on this day in 1972 that British army parachutists shot 27 unarmed civil rights demonstrators in Derry, Northern Ireland — an event known as "Bloody Sunday." The protestors had been marching to oppose the new British policy of imprisoning people without a hearing.

The Northern Irish conflict stemmed from a peace treaty signed in 1923 after Ireland's successful war for independence from Britain. The treaty partitioned Ireland, designating the largely Catholic south as an independent nation, while leaving six counties of Northern Ireland, which had a Protestant majority, as part of the United Kingdom.

On this day, parachute troopers were given the OK to fire on the protestors. The first person killed was shot in the back. Thirteen people died — half of them were teenagers. All of the protesters were unarmed.

And it is birthday of the 32nd president of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, born in Hyde Park, New York (1882). His mother, Sara, was in labor with him for more than 24 hours, and the doctor was beginning to fear the worst. He gave Mrs. Roosevelt some chloroform to calm her, and 45 minutes later, young Franklin made his entrance into the world: blue, unmoving, and weighing nearly 10 pounds. The doctor blew into the baby's lungs and revived him. Due to the traumatic and dangerous birth, the Roosevelts decided Franklin would be an only child. The family was comfortably wealthy, having made a reasonable fortune in real estate and trade, and the boy grew up surrounded by love, indulgence, and attention; the universe revolved around him, at least as far as his mother was concerned. He grew up in relative isolation, and was schooled by private tutors until he left to attend the prestigious Groton School in Massachusetts at the age of 14. In order to be popular at Groton, a student needed to be a star athlete or a rebel, and Roosevelt was neither. He just wanted to please his teachers, who instilled in their wealthy pupils a sense of obligation to help the less fortunate. Roosevelt went on to Harvard, where he had a much more active social life and participated in many extracurricular activities — at the cost of his grades. Marriage and law school followed Harvard, and he first entered the political arena in 1910, after some fellow New York Democrats asked him to run for office. Politics seemed a perfect fit for the outgoing Roosevelt, who loved to meet new people and longed to be a leader.

Roosevelt possessed a zest for life, an easy confidence, and an optimistic outlook, traits that stayed with him even in his darkest days. He was diagnosed with polio in 1921, and Eleanor Roosevelt later recalled: "I know that he had real fear when he was first taken ill, but he learned to surmount it. After that I never heard him say he was afraid of anything." He never gave up hope of a complete recovery, and managed to conceal the extent of his paralysis from the public for the rest of his life.

Even while steering the country through the Great Depression and World War II, Roosevelt still had time for his favorite hobbies. He enjoyed collecting stamps, playing cards, bird-watching, and swimming in a pool he had built at the White House. He had a special fondness for Mickey Mouse cartoons. He held a nightly cocktail hour for his close associates. Above all, FDR enjoyed entertaining. He was gregarious and loved to be surrounded by people. There were the usual formal state dinners one might expect, but the Roosevelts also hosted teas, children's parties, dances, cocktail parties, and game nights. Sometimes, Roosevelt would lead his guests in an impromptu sing-along, and his birthday parties usually featured friends and family members acting in comedy skits. White House staff had to cope with guest lists that were twice what had been planned for, or last-minute overnight guests when all the rooms were already full. The Washington Post reported that the Roosevelts had 28,000 visitors in 1936 alone: a mix of policy makers, school children, the press corps, visiting dignitaries, royalty, and celebrities. Once the war started, they didn't host as many events, but the scale of the events remained large. Two thousand people attended FDR's 1945 inaugural luncheon, and consumed chicken salad made from 200 chickens, plus 170 dozen rolls, almost 100 gallons of coffee, and 165 cakes (which were unfrosted because sugar and butter were rationed).

Through it all, his beloved Scottish terrier, Fala, was never far away. Fala — whose full name was "Murray, the Outlaw of Falahill," accompanied the president on his travels and slept in a special chair at the foot of FDR's bed. He was brought a bone every morning, and Roosevelt fed him his dinner every night. The dog was so popular with the American people that he needed his own secretary to deal with the overwhelming volume of mail that he received. When Roosevelt died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1945, the little dog was inconsolable. Eleanor reported that Fala grew to tolerate her, but spent the rest of his life waiting for the master to return.

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