Mar. 29, 2014

I Didn't Go to Church Today

by Ogden Nash

I didn't go to church today,
I trust the Lord to understand.
The surf was swirling blue and white,
The children swirling on the sand.
He knows, He knows how brief my stay,
How brief this spell of summer weather,
He knows when I am said and done
We'll have plenty of time together.

"I Didn't Go to Church Today" by Ogden Nash from The Best of Ogden Nash. © Ivan R. Dee, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1886, John Pemberton perfected a headache and hangover remedy he had cooked up over a fire in his backyard. It contained coca leaves and extract of kola nut, and he advertised it as an "Esteemed Brain Tonic and Intellectual Beverage." He had been making something called "Pemberton's French Wine Coca," but Atlanta had just passed a prohibition law, and he had to come up with an alcohol-free formula. He sweetened the new elixir with sugar instead of wine, and his bookkeeper suggested he name the beverage "Coca-Cola." The following year, the prohibition law was repealed; and Pemberton decided Coca-Cola was a losing proposition. He sold off his interest in the formula and went back to making French Wine Coca. Coca-Cola is now the most widely recognized brand in the world. In the years since its first appearance, it has developed an underground reputation as a sovereign laundry additive, ham glaze, and rust remover.

It's the birthday of the politician and author Eugene McCarthy (books by this author), born in Watkins, Minnesota (1916). He grew up in a family of Irish Catholics and considered becoming a Catholic monk after high school. He served nine months as a monk in training at St. John's abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. But he switched to studying sociology instead.

He was teaching sociology at the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul in the late 1940s when his interest in politics grew so powerful that he decided he had no choice but to run for political office. He won a congressional seat in 1952 and went on to the Senate in 1958.

He distinguished himself in his first term as a congressman by becoming the first person to challenge Joseph McCarthy on the issue of hunting communists. But even more surprising was his decision as a senator to run against Lyndon Johnson for the presidency in 1968. It was almost unheard of for any politician to run against a sitting president of his own party. But McCarthy had decided that someone had to challenge the policy on the war in Vietnam.

It was McCarthy who gave anti-war activists a voice in national politics. Before McCarthy entered the race, the peace movement in America wasn't taken very seriously; anyone who was against the war was called a hippie and treated as irrelevant by the mainstream press and most politicians."

When he retired from Congress, he became a writer, penning several books about politics, and many poetry collections, including Ground Fog and Night (1979) and Other Things and the Aardvark (1970).

Eugene McCarthy said, "Being in politics is like being a football coach. You have to be smart enough to understand the game and dumb enough to think it's important."

On this day in 1912, Captain Robert Falcon Scott wrote the last entry in his diary. Scott is remembered for his bravery in losing the race to the South Pole. His first expedition on the Discovery (1901-04) took him within 450 miles of the South Pole before he had to turn back. He later led the Terra Nova expedition, which reached the pole in January 1912 — only to discover that Norwegian Roald Amundsen had been there a month earlier. He wrote: "The Norwegians have forestalled us and are first at the Pole. It is a terrible disappointment and I am very sorry for my loyal companions ... To-morrow we must march on the Pole, and then hasten home with all the speed we can compass. All the day-dreams must go; it will be a wearisome return."

On the return trip Scott and his party of four all died of hunger and extreme cold. Their bodies were found eight months later just 11 miles from a food and fuel depot. On March 29, in his last diary entry, Scott wrote: "Since the 21st we have had a continuous gale ... We had fuel to make two cups of tea apiece and bare food for two days on the 20th. Every day we have been ready to start for our depot 11 miles away, but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. I do not think we can hope for better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write any more."

It's the birthday of the memoirist Alexandra Fuller (books by this author), born in Glossop, England (1969). Her memoir Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight was a big success when it came out in (2002). It's the story of her childhood, growing up in what was then the African country of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

Her parents were white settlers in Rhodesia, trying to make a living as tobacco and cattle farmers, and they were trying to do this as a civil war was being fought between the white government and the black nationalist rebels. Whenever the family left the house, they always traveled in groups, and they had to keep a lookout for mines and booby traps, as well as scorpions, snakes, and crocodiles. By the time she was seven years old, Alexandra Fuller had learned to strip, clean, load, and fire a machine gun.

At the time, she had no idea what the civil war was about. She just knew that her father would be gone for days, fighting what he called "the terrorists." Her mother would hold down the fort, rounding up stray cattle and killing cobras in the pantry. One of Fuller's most vivid memories is of watching her mother, pregnant and on horseback, fighting off a group of squatters who were attempting to take over the family farm.

Fuller spent much of her youth trying to figure out the events surrounding her. She said: "I woke up in a society where I wasn't the right color and didn't understand the culture or the language. I felt quite peripheral to events. So I watched, very carefully, people and things spinning out of control. I became a spectator ... a pair of eyes on a pair of legs."

Once she left Africa, Fuller decided she wanted to be a fiction writer, and she wrote nine novels, all of which fictionalized aspects of her childhood. But she couldn't get anything published. So after marrying an American and moving to Wyoming, she finally decided to just write a nonfiction book about what really happened. She started the book in the middle of a Wyoming winter, when she was feeling particularly homesick for Africa, and it took her only six weeks to finish the first draft.

She had long felt tremendously guilty about the fact that her parents were associated with the racist white government of Rhodesia. But when she began to write her memoir, she realized that she could just describe what had happened without making any judgments. She said: "If you pay close attention to racism, it's ludicrous. I decided to expose it as it is — expose the insecurity it hides."

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight (2002) was a big success. It begins: "Mum says, 'Don't come creeping into our room at night.' They sleep with loaded guns beside them on the bedside rugs. She says, 'Don't startle us when we're sleeping.' 'Why not?' 'We might shoot you.' 'Oh.' 'By mistake.' 'Okay.' As it is, there seems a good enough chance of getting shot on purpose. 'Okay, I won't.' So if I wake in the night and need Mum and Dad, I call Vanessa [my sister], because she isn't armed."

Alexandra Fuller's most recent book, Cocktail Hour Under The Tree of Forgetfulness (2012), and in it she tells the story of her mother, born in Scotland and raised in Kenya.

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