May 6, 2014

To Lean

by Diane Decillis

Having injured
my shoulder
I dream
of racing
down the Thames,
part of a crew,
octuple scull,
long slender shell,
feet fixed
seats glide,
lock and socket,
sweep of oars—
lift of water,
a lubricant
to be part of
this synchrony,
able to lean
on others, ride
the breastbone
of a bird,
without wings or
even a feather.

"To Lean" by Diane Decillis from Strings Attached. © Wayne State University Press, 2014. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1862, Henry David Thoreau (books by this author) died of tuberculosis. He was 44. Before he died, his aunt asked him if he was at peace with God, and Thoreau replied, "I was not aware that we had quarreled."

It's the birthday of poet and critic Randall Jarrell (books by this author), born in Nashville, Tennessee (1914). In his critical essays, collected and published as Poetry and the Age (1953), he revitalized the reputations of Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, and William Carlos Williams. He's also responsible for bringing attention to the poetry of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop.

During World War II, he worked as a control tower operator, and he wrote about war in his books of poetry, collections Little Friend, Little Friend (1945) and Losses (1948). In Losses, he wrote:
"We read our mail and counted up our missions —
In bombers named for girls, we burned
The cities we had learned about in school —
Till our lives wore out; our bodies lay among
The people we had killed and never seen.
When we lasted long enough they gave us medals;
When we died they said, 'Our casualties were low.'"

It was on this day in 1994 that the Channel Tunnel ("Chunnel") opened, connecting Britain and France via an underground tunnel beneath the English Channel. It was the first time Britain had been connected to the European mainland since the last Ice Age, more than 8,000 years ago.

Almost 200 years before the opening of the Chunnel, during a period of peace between France and England, a French mining engineer proposed the idea for a tunnel beneath the English Channel. His ideas, which he presented to Napoleon, included horse-drawn carriages moving through a wooden tunnel lit by candles, and ventilation pipes poking out above the ocean surface. Peace between France and England was short-lived, however, and the idea was abandoned. About 50 years later, it was revisited, this time using the improved technology of railroads. A French engineer went on solo dives and determined that the geology of the channel floor, with its soft chalk, would be perfect for a tunnel. Research continued, and by 1881 the two nations began digging with rudimentary boring machines. But the British military intervened, concerned that the tunnel would compromise national security if they ever went to war with France. Several solutions were proposed — a valve to quickly flood the tunnel, or a fortress on the British side that could close the tunnel with explosives — but the British military would not budge. The project was once again abandoned, as it was again in 1907, 1924, and 1930 — each time the French were supportive, but it was vetoed by the British. One Cabinet decision ended with these words: "So long as the ocean remains our friend, do not let us deliberately destroy its power to help us." The plan was renewed in the 1960s and seemed almost sure to happen this time, but the British government backed out in 1975, even though all the surveys had been completed and the British even had their tunnel-boring machine ready to go.

Finally, in 1984, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher announced that she had no interest in the government paying for such a project, but no objection to it if it were privately funded. Finally, the project was on its way, with a contest for the tunnel's design. The winning design consisted of two parallel railway tunnels, with a third smaller tunnel in between to be used for maintenance and as an emergency escape route. There were several places where railroad cars could cross from one tunnel to the other if necessary.

The digging began from both sides. Huge boring machines dug through the chalk, sent the debris out on conveyor belts, and lined the walls with concrete. The plan was to meet in the middle, but nothing quite like it had been attempted before, and everyone was anxious that the two sides would miss each other. When they realized that they had tunneled correctly, one worker from each nation was chosen by lottery to mark the official meeting of the two sides. On December 1, 1990, a French worker named Philippe Cozette extended his hand through a small hole in the rock, where it was met by the hand of Englishman Graham Fagg in a symbolic handshake. Construction workers threw their hard hats in the air, waved flags, and uncorked bottles of champagne.

That famous meeting occurred in 1990, well before the Tunnel was completed. The first tunnel excavated was the small service tunnel, so now the crew had to dig two larger tunnels, one on each side, and then complete all the final infrastructure, from a ventilation system to fireproof doors to terminals at the end points.

On this day in 1994, it was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth and President François Mitterrand. The queen journeyed by passenger train from London to Calais in the Chunnel, and Mitterrand from Paris to Calais. Together they cut red, white, and blue ribbons while a band played each country's national anthem. After a lunch together, the rulers hopped in the queen's Rolls-Royce, which had been brought across the Channel on a ferry, and traveled back through the Channel Tunnel on Le Shuttle, which transports cars through the tunnel. Once they reached England they had another ribbon-cutting ceremony. The queen said, "The mixture of French élan and British pragmatism, when united in a common cause, has proved to be a highly successful combination." The 31-mile tunnel cost more than $15 billion to build. It is now possible to journey from London to Paris in less than three hours.

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