May 22, 2014


by Carrie Fountain

We spent months of our lives walking
from Sears to Penney's, back when we were
vague, a couple of ideas forming ourselves
against the certainty of merchandise,
in the presence of strangers, when no one
knew us or wished to know us or could even
perceive us as we passed, two girls, unsmiling,
unwilling, not finished. When I think
of what we looked like then I think
of newborn horses: stunned and exhausted,
still slick with the cumbersome fluids of birth.
You were the leader. You'd stop
at the waterfall by the food court, dig a coin
from your pocket, and toss it over your shoulder
into the fiberglass river, then turn, press a coin
into my palm, and say, "Now you do it."
We were hopeful. Our quarters slapped the water
and disappeared beneath it. The little river
went on, past the shoe store. And we followed it—
we followed it as long as we could, longing
toward this: the unseen, unwished-for present.

"Heaven" by Carrie Fountain from Burn Lake. © Penguin Group, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1843, 1,000 pioneers headed west on the Oregon Trail in what is now known as the "Great Migration."

The Oregon Trail is a historic commercial and emigrant trail that stretches 2,000 miles from the Missouri River to the Willamette Valley in Oregon. When fur traders first discovered the trail in the early part of the 19th century, it was impassable by wagon and could only be traveled on foot or horse. But by the late 1830s, improvements made the trail accessible to wagons, and many people were intent on heading westward. They had heard glorious stories of Oregon's beauty and the many possibilities that awaited them in the West.

A lawyer in Missouri named Peter Burnett (who was later elected the first governor of California) felt the call of the West. As he later wrote, "I saw that a great American community would grow up, in the space of a few years, upon the distant Pacific and I felt an ardent desire to aid in this most important enterprise." So he helped organize a wagon train with 300 men, women, and children and 50 wagons that left Independence on this day in 1843. By the time the train reached Topeka, Kansas, the number of pioneers had more than doubled.

The travelers got in frequent fights over who would guard the cattle at night. They encountered herds of bison and villages of prairie dogs. They reached Fort Laramie, Wyoming, in 40 days, a distance of 670 miles. From there they passed through the Rocky Mountains, crossed the Colorado River, then headed west-southwest to Fort Bridger and then Fort Boise. They finally arrived in the Willamette Valley five months after setting off from Independence.

Four more wagon trains made the journey the following year, and by 1845, the number of travelers surpassed 3,000. The trail fell out of use as railroad lines began to crisscross the country, and it was abandoned entirely in the 1870s.

It is the birthday of the first openly gay man elected to public office. Harvey Milk was born in Woodmere, New York (1930). He was the younger of two boys and was teased as a child for his big ears and big nose. He played football in high school, studied math in college, and wrote for the college newspaper. He later joined the Navy and served on a submarine rescue ship during the Korean War.

He moved from job to job after leaving the Navy. He taught high school, became an actuary, worked on Wall Street. He moved to San Francisco in 1969 and fell in love with the city, which had become a hub for gay men. He met his lover Scott Smith in San Francisco, and after a roll of film Harvey dropped off at a camera shop was ruined, the two decided to open a camera store with the $1,000 they had between them.

One day when a state worker visited Castro Camera and informed Milk that he owed $100 in state sales taxes, he was outraged. After weeks of complaining at various state offices, he got the fee reduced to $30. But he became upset again when a schoolteacher came into the shop to rent a projector because the equipment in the schools did not function. And he got so angry watching then-Attorney General John N. Mitchell say, "I don't recall" during the Watergate hearings that friends had to restrain him from kicking the TV.

Milk's increasing outrage led him to run for city supervisor in the 1973 election. He was a hippie with no money and no political experience, and while his savvy media skills earned him attention, he lost the election. Undeterred, Milk built coalitions with organized labor over the following two years and ran again for city supervisor in 1975. This time he decided to cut his long hair, wear suits, and give up his support to legalize marijuana. Milk lost again, but this time the election was much closer. His spirits buoyed by the narrow loss, he ran for the California State Assembly. He lost.

But Milk had found his passion in politics and he ran for city supervisor again in 1977. He campaigned on civil rights issues, but he also advocated for less expensive child care facilities, free public transportation, and the creation of a civilian board to oversee the police. He won by 30 percent and his election as the first openly gay man elected to public office made national headlines.

One of the other supervisors sworn in that day with Milk was Daniel White, a former police officer and firefighter. But after 10 months of service, White resigned saying that the $9,600 per year wasn't enough to support his family. But then a few days later, he changed his mind and asked to be reinstated. The mayor originally agreed but then changed his mind, choosing to appoint someone who better represented the area's growing diversity.

So on November 27, 1978, just before the press conference announcing his replacement, White snuck into City Hall through a basement window, walked to the mayor's office and shot and killed him. He then ran into Milk in the hallway, asked to see him privately for a moment, and then shot him five times including twice in the head at close range. Senator Diane Feinstein heard the shots and was the one who identified the bodies.

California has designated today Harvey Milk Day.

He said, "If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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