Nov. 12, 2014


by Ron Koertge

They were never handsome and often came
with a hormone imbalance manifested by corpulence,
a yodel of a voice or ears big as kidneys.

But each was brave. More than once a sidekick
has thrown himself in front of our hero in order
to receive the bullet or blow meant for that
perfect face and body.

Thankfully, heroes never die in movies and leave
the sidekick alone. He would not stand for it.
Gabby or Pat, Pancho or Andy remind us of a part
of ourselves,

the dependent part that can never grow up,
the part that is painfully eager to please,
always wants a hug and never gets enough.

Who could sit in a darkened theatre, listen
to the organ music and watch the best
of ourselves lowered into the ground while
the rest stood up there, tears pouring off
that enormous nose.

"Sidekicks" by Ron Koertge, from Life on the Edge of the Continent. © University of Arkansas Press, 1982. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today marks the anniversary of the first recorded observance of a meteor shower in North America. Andrew Ellicott Douglass was an American astronomer who was on a ship off the Florida Keys on this date in 1799. He wrote that the "whole heaven appeared as if illuminated with skyrockets, flying in an infinity of directions, and I was in constant expectation of some of them falling on the vessel. They continued until put out by the light of the sun after day break."

What Douglass described was the Leonids meteor shower, which occurs every November. The shower gets its name from the fact that it seems to originate in the constellation Leo, and it's the result of debris from a comet known as Tempel-Tuttle. When the comet's orbit takes it back to that part of the solar system — roughly every 33 years — the Leonids are especially spectacular.

It was on this day 60 years ago that Ellis Island formally closed its doors after processing more than 12 million immigrants to the United States in its more than a half century of service.

Before 1890, when President Harrison designated it the first federal immigration center, the states had previously managed immigration themselves. New York's Castle Garden station had single-handedly processed more than 8 million newcomers in the previous 40 years. As conditions in southern and eastern Europe worsened, and demand for religious asylum increased, officials prepared for what would soon be the greatest human migration in the history of the world, deciding to greet the "huddled masses" before they ever hit shore.

On January 1st, 1894, a 15-year-old Irish girl named Annie Moore became the first person to be ushered through the gates at Ellis Island. The original Great Hall was built of southern yellow pine and served well until a fire in 1897 burned it to the ground along with all the country's immigration records dating back to 1855. The government rebuilt quickly with fireproof concrete this time. First- and second-class passengers arriving in the U.S. were waved past the island and given just a brief inspection on board to check for obvious disease. After docking in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, the poorer third-class and steerage passengers were ferried to the island by barge where they underwent more thorough interviews. Officials observed the immigrants as they climbed the staircase into the main hall and marked a simple chalk code on the coats of those they suspected to be sickly. If you were in good health and your story checked out, processing might only take about five hours. Only 2 percent of all immigrants that passed through the gates were turned away, often for infectious disease.

The facilities expanded constantly to meet the growing throngs of people, and engineers steadily increased the footprint of the island by dumping ship's ballast and piling up landfill from construction of the first subway lines. The island was eventually expanded tenfold to roughly 30 acres. In the year 1907 alone, more than a million people passed through the center. With the dawn of World War I, immigration from Europe began to slow. The Red Scare and a growing backlash against foreigners at home soon brought it to a crawl. After 1924, laws were passed allowing immigrants to be processed at foreign embassies, and Ellis Island was made into a detention center for suspected enemies.

On this day in 1954, the last detainee was released and the island was formally decommissioned. Abandoned for decades, in 1984 the island began the largest restoration undertaking in U.S. history, creating an Immigration Museum that has now drawn more than 30 million visitors. Today almost 40 percent of Americans can trace their ancestry through the gates of Ellis Island.

It's the birthday of the founder of Reader's Digest, DeWitt Wallace, born in St. Paul, Minnesota (1889). His father was a professor of Greek and Old English at Macalester College, but Wallace rebelled against his father's example and fell in love with business. As a young man, he was always trying to make a buck, raising chickens, selling vegetables from his garden, and operating an electrical repair service.

After college, he worked for a publishing house that specialized in agricultural textbooks. While working there, he learned that the federal government had all kinds of free informational pamphlets that were available to farmers, but most farmers didn't even know these pamphlets existed. So he decided to publish and sell a condensed collection of the free pamphlets to farmers, called Getting the Most Out of Farming. It was a huge success, and Wallace decided that making information easily available was the secret to the publishing industry.

He was still trying to figure out what to do next when World War I broke out, and he enlisted in the Army. He was seriously wounded in 1918. During his recovery, he read hundreds of magazines, and he suddenly realized that a pocket-sized magazine full of condensed general-interest articles from other magazines could be a big hit. He compiled a sample issue of the first Reader's Digest. The first issue came out in February 1922. People didn't think it would last, because it was just a reprint journal, but Wallace had a talent for finding those stories that appealed to the widest number of people. By the end of the decade, Reader's Digest went on to become the most successful magazine of all time, with 39 editions in 15 languages, and a total circulation of almost 30 million magazines a month.

It's the birthday of feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, born in Johnstown, New York (1815). When her brother died, she was allowed to take his place in the Johnstown Academy; previously, she hadn't been admitted. She won honors there, but even so, no college would take her. She studied law in her father's office, but wasn't allowed to take the bar exam or practice. In 1848, the first women's rights convention in America was held near her home in Seneca Falls, New York. With Susan B. Anthony and Matilda Joslyn Gage, she compiled the first three volumes of The History of Woman Suffrage.

Stanton said: "The moment we begin to fear the opinions of others and hesitate to tell the truth that is in us, and from motives of policy are silent when we should speak, the divine floods of light and life no longer flow into our souls."

It's the birthday of journalist and short-story writer Tracy Kidder (books by this author), born in New York City (1945), who started out as a fiction writer, but decided early on that he preferred writing about real people. In the late 1970s, he spent eight months living in the basement of Data General Corporation, watching the engineers at work on a new microcomputer. He described the engineers as "knights errant, clad in blue jeans and open collars, seeking with awesome intensity the grail of technological achievement. ... They believe that what they do is elegant and important, but they have the feeling that no one else understands or cares." Kidder's book The Soul of a New Machine was one of the first nontechnical books about the computer industry, and it won the Pulitzer Prize when it came out in 1981.

Kidder went on to write a series of books about apparently ordinary topics. For his book House (1985), he wrote about the construction of a single house in Amherst, Massachusetts, because he said, "[Building] is the quintessential act of civilization." To write his book Among Schoolchildren (1989), he sat in a single fifth-grade classroom in an impoverished public school for an entire school year.

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