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1. THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE FIRST CHAIN REACTION PILE by Enrico Fermi
2. ABOVE PATE VALLEY by Gary Snyder
3. A BROTHER'S DEATH IN ITALY by Vera Brittain
4. THE PORTRAIT by Stanley Kunitz
5. CONCLUSION OF A LETTER TO FELIX FAURE: PRESIDENT OF THE REPUBLIC, JANUARY 12, 1898 by Emile Zola
6. THE END AND THE BEGINNING by WisLawa Szymborska
7. from PILGRIM AT TINKER CREEK by Annie Dillard
8. ON THE DEATH OF FRIENDS IN CHILDHOOD by Donald Justice
9. "the madeleine passage" from THE REMEMBRANCES OF THINGS PAST by Marcel Proust
10. GRETEL IN DARKNESS by Louis Glück
11. DANNY HUDDLESTUN by John Guzlowski
12 THE DEATH OF BENNY PARET by Norman Mailer
13. THEY WERE VERY GOOD YEARS from The Chicago Tribune
14. from OH, AMERICA WHEN YOU AND I WERE YOUNG by Luigi Barzini
15. from SPEAK, MEMORY by Vladamir Nabakov.
16. FIRST FACT by Paul Metcalf
17. “NEAR A CHURCH” from LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN by James Agee
18. THE DESTRUCTIVE CHARACTER by Walter Benjamin
19. TWO EXCERPTS FROM "THE JUNGLE" by Upton Sinclair
THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE FIRST CHAIN REACTION PILE
Dec 2, 1942. The beginning of the nuclear age. Strange. Cold. Matter-of-fact. And haunting. Notice there are almost no references to humans at all.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE FIRST CHAIN REACTION PILE
...the indications were that the critical dimensions had been slightly exceeded and that the system did not chain react only because of the [neutron] absorption of the cadmium strips. During the morning all the cadmium strips but one were carefully removed; then this last strip was gradually extracted, close watch being kept on the intensity. From the measurements it was expected that the system would become critical by removing a length of about eight feet of this last strip. Actually when about seven feet were removed the intensity rose to a very high value but still stabilized after a few minutes at a finite level. It was with some trepidation that the order was given to remove one more foot and a half of the strip. This operation would bring us over the top. When the foot and a half was pulled out, the intensity started rising slowly, but at an increasing rate, and kept on increasing until it was evident that it would actually diverge. Then the cadmium strips were again inserted into the structure and the intensity dropped to an insignificant level.
© Enrico Fermi
ABOVE PATE VALLEY
A classic example worlds colliding. With each "k" sound at the end I hear the axe chipping a hole in the rock to wedge in the explosives.
ABOVE PATE VALLEY
We finished clearing the last
section of trail by noon,
High on the ridge-side
Two thousand feet above the creek
Reached the pass, went on
Beyond the white pine groves,
Granite shadows, to a small
Green meadow watered by the snow,
Edged with Aspen--sun
Straight high and blazing
But the air was cool.
Ate a cold fried trout in the
Trembling shadows. I spied
A glitter, and found a flake
Black volcanic glass--obsidian--
By a flower. Hands and knees
Pushing the Bear grass, thousands
Of arrowhead leavings over a
Hundred yards. No one good
Head, just razor flakes
On a hill snowed all but summer,
A land of fat summer deer,
They came to camp. On their
Own trails. I followed my own
Trail here. Picked up the cold-drill,
Pick, singlejack, and sack
Ten thousand years.
© Origin Press and Gary Snyder
A BROTHER'S DEATH IN ITALY
From Testament of Youth, Brittain's great memoir of the The First World War. The part with the maid reminds me of Auden's poem "Musée des Beaux Arts." How one person's suffering is another's indifference. Also how objects take on a new light after tragedy.
A BROTHER'S DEATH IN ITALY
'Regret to inform you Captain E. H. Brittain, M. C. killed in action Italy June 15th'
'No answer,' I told the boy mechanically, and handed the telegram to my father who had followed me into the hall. As we went back to the dining room I saw, as though I had never seen them before, the bowl of blue delphiniums on the table; their intense colour, vivid, ethereal, seemed too radiant for earthly flowers.
Then I remembered that we should have to go down to Purley and tell the news to my mother.
Late that evening, my uncle brought us all back to an empty flat. Edward's death and our sudden departure had offered the maid--at that time the amateur prostitute--an agreeable opportunity for a few hours' freedom of which she had taken immediate advantage. She had not even finished the household handkerchiefs, which I had washed that morning and intended to iron after tea; when I went into the kitchen I found them still hanging, stiff as boards, over the clothes-horse near the fire where I had left them to dry.
Long after the family had gone to bed and the world had grown silent, I crept into the dining-room to be alone with Edward's portrait. Carefully closing the door, I turned on the light and looked at the pale, pictured face; so dignified, so steadfast, to tragically mature. He had been through so much--far, far more than those beloved friends who had died at an earlier stage of the interminable War, leaving him alone to mourn their loss. Fate might have allowed him the little sorry compensation of survival, the chance to make his lovely music in honour of their memory. It seemed indeed the last irony that he should have been killed by the countrymen of Fritz Kreisler, the violinist whom of all other he had most greatly admired.
And suddenly, as I remembered all the dear afternoons and evenings when I had followed him on the piano as he played his violin, the sad searching eyes of the portrait were more than I could bear, and falling on my knees before it I began to cry 'Edward! Oh, Edward!' in dazed repetition, as though my persistent crying and calling would somehow bring him back.
© Vera Brittain
As direct and as powerful a statement on the terrible silence in families as I have ever read.
My mother never forgave my father
for killing himself
especially at such an awkward time
and in a public park
when I was waiting to be born.
She locked his name
in her deepest cabinet
and would not let him out,
though I could hear him thumping.
When I came down from the attic
with the pastel portrait in my hand
of a long lipped stranger
with a brave mustache
and deep brown level eyes,
she ripped it into shreds
without a single word
and slapped me hard.
In my sixty-fourth year
I can feel my cheek
© Stanley Kunitz
CONCLUSION OF A LETTER TO FELIX FAURE: PRESIDENT OF THE REPUBLIC, JANUARY 12, 1898
After the events of 9/11 it's important that we keep a cool head about things, lest we fall into an Arab-American version of The Dreyfus Affair. This remarkable conclusion of a letter that tore apart a generation and a country is something all of us should re-read.
CONCLUSION OF A LETTER TO FELIX FAURE: PRESIDENT OF THE REPUBLIC, JANUARY 12, 1898
But this letter is long Mr. President, and it is time to conclude.
I ACCUSE COLONEL DU PATY DE CALM of having been a diabolical agent of a judicial error, unconsciously, I prefer to believe, and of having continued to defend his deadly work during the past three years through the most absurd and revolting machinations.
I ACCUSE GENERAL MERCIER of having made himself an accomplice in one of the greatest crimes in history, probably through weak-mindedness.
I ACCUSE GENERAL BILLOT of having had in his hands the decisive proofs of the innocence of Dreyfus and of having concealed them, and of having rendered himself guilty of the crime of lèse humanity, lèse justice, out of political motives and to save the face of the General Staff.
I ACCUSE GENERAL BOISDEFFRE AND GENERAL GONSE of being accomplices in the same crime, the former no doubt through religious prejudices, the later out of esprit du corps.
I ACCUSE GENERAL DE PELLIEUX AND MAJOR RAVARY of having made a scoundrelly inquest, I mean an inquest of the most monstrous partiality, the complete report of which composes for us an imperishable monument of naïve effrontery.
I ACCUSE THE THREE HANDWRITING EXPERTS, MM. Belhomme, Varinad and Couard of having made lying and fraudulent reports, unless a medical examination will certify them to be deficient of sight and judgment.
I ACCUSE THE WAR-OFFICE of having lead a vile campaign in the press, particularly in l'Eclair and in l'Echo de Paris in order to misdirect public opinion and cover up its sins.
I ACCUSE, LASTLY, THE FIRST COURT-MARTIAL of having violated all human right in condemning a prisoner on testimony kept secret from him, and I ACCUSE THE SECOND COURT-MARTIAL of having covered up this illegally by order, committing in turn the judicial crime of acquitting a guilty man with the full knowledge of his guilt.
In making these accusations I am aware that I render myself liable to articles 30 and 31 of Libel Laws of July 29, 1881, which punish acts of defamation. I expose myself voluntarily.
As to the men I accuse, I do not know them, I have never seen them, I feel neither resentment nor hatred against them. For me they are only entities, emblems of social malfeasance. The action I take here is simply a revolutionary step designed to hasten the explosion of truth and justice.
I have one passion only, for light, in the name of humanity which has borne so much and has a right to happiness. My burning protest is only the cry of my soul. Let them dare then to carry me to the court of appeals, and let there be an inquest in the full light of day!
I am waiting.
Mr. President, I beg you to accept the assurances of my deepest respect.
THE END AND THE BEGINNING
Time has it’s own agenda and it flows as sure and as natural as a river, as this great poem by the Nobel Prize winner suggests.
THE END AND THE BEGINNING
After every war
someone’s got to tidy up.
things won’t pick
themselves up, after all.
Someone’s got to shove
the ruble to the roadsides
so the carts loaded with corpses
can get by.
Someone’s got to trudge
through the sludge and ashes,
through the sofa springs,
the shards of glass,
the bloody rags.
Someone’s got to lug the post
to prop the wall,
someone’s got to glaze the window,
set the door in it’s frame.
No sound bites, no photo opportunities
and it takes years.
All the cameras have gone
to other wars.
The bridges need to be rebuilt,
the railroad stations, too.
shirt sleeves will be rolled
Someone, broom in hand,
still remembers how it was.
Someone else listens, nodding
his unshattered head.
But others are bound to be bustling nearby
who’ll find all that
a little boring.
From time to time someone still must
dig up a rusted argument
from underneath a bush
and haul it off to the dump.
Those who knew
what this was all about
must make way for those
who know little.
And less than that.
And at last nothing less
Someone’s got to lie there
in the grass that covers up
the causes and effects
with a cornstalk in his teeth,
gawking at clouds.
© WisLawa Szymborska
from PILGRIM AT TINKER CREEK
Annie Dillard is the finest observer of nature I have ever read. Her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is our Walden.
from PILGRIM AT TINKER CREEK
Monarchs were everywhere. They skittered and bobbed, rested in the air, lolled on the dust—but with none of their usual insouciance. They had but one unwearying thought: South. I watched from my study window: three, four…….eighteen, nineteen, one every few seconds and some in tandem. They came fanning straight towards my window from the northwest, and from the northeast, materializing from behind the tips of high hemlocks, where Polaris hangs by night. They appeared as Indian horsemen appear in movies: first dotted, then massed, silent, at the rim of a hill.
Each monarch butterfly had a brittle black body and deep orange wings limned and looped in black bands. A monarch at rest looks like a fleck of a tiger, stilled and wide-eyed. A monarch in flight looks like an autumn leaf with a will, vitalized and cast upon the air from which it seems to suck some thin sugar of energy, some leaf-life or sap. As each one climbed up the air outside my window, I could see the more delicate, ventral surface of the wings, and I had a sense of bunched legs and straining throax, but I could never focus well into the flapping and jerking before it vaulted up past the window and out of sight over my head.
I walked out and saw a monarch do a wonderful thing: it climbed a hill without twitching a muscles. I was standing at the bridge over Tinker Creek, at the southern foot of a very steep hill. The monarch beat it’s way beside me over the bridge at eye level, and then, flailing its wings exhaustedly, ascended straight up in the air. It rose vertically to the enormous height of a bankside sycamore’s crown. Then, fixing its wings at a precise angle, it glided up the steep road, losing altitude extremely slowly, climbing by checking its fall, until it came to rest at a puddle in front of the house at the top of the hill.
I followed. It panted, skirmished briefly westward, and then, returning to the puddle, began it’s assault on the house. It struggles almost straight up the air next to the two-story-brick wall, and then scaled the roof. Wasting no effort, it followed the roof’s own slope, from a distance of two inches. Puff, and it was out of sight. I wondered how many more hills and houses it would have to climb before it could rest. From the force of its will it would seem it could flutter through walls.
© Annie Dillard
ON THE DEATH OF FRIENDS IN CHILDHOOD
One of the loveliest elegies in our language. And he does it in six lines.
ON THE DEATH OF FRIENDS IN CHILDHOOD
We shall not ever meet them bearded in heaven,
Nor sunning themselves among the ball of hell;
If anywhere, in the deserted schoolyard at twilight,
Forming a ring, perhaps, or joining hands
In games whose very names we have forgotten.
Come, memory, let us seek them there in the shadows.
© Donald Justice
"the madeleine passage" from THE REMEMBRANCES OF THINGS PAST
Great literature can transport us. Every time I read this epiphany I end up someplace else.
"the madeleine passage" from THE REMEMBRANCES OF THINGS PAST
And suddenly the memory returns. The taste was that of a little crumb of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before church-time), when I went to say good day to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of real or of lime-flowered tea. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it; perhaps because I had so often seen such things in the interval, without tasting them, on the trays in pastry-cooks’ windows, that their image had disassociated itself from those Combray days to take its place among others more recent; perhaps because of those memories, so long abandoned and put out of mind, nothing now survived, everything was scattered, the forms of things, including that of the little scallop-shell of pastry, so richly sensual under its severe, religious folds, were either obliterated or had been so long dormant as to have lost the power of expansion which would have allowed them to resume their place in my consciousness. But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and most impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.
And once I had recognized the taste of the crumb of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-flowers which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like the scenery of a theater to attach itself to the little pavilion, opening on to the garden, which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated panel which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I was sent before luncheon, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine. And just as the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping it in little crumbs of paper which are until then without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch themselves and bend, take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, permanent and recognisable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann's park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonee and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and garden alike, from my cup of tea.
© Random House 1928 and Vintage Books 1970
GRETEL IN DARKNESS
This poem has always chilled me. I can hear the crackling of the fire in the two "est" sounds at the end.
GRETEL IN DARKNESS
This is the world we wanted.
All who would have seen us dead
are dead. I hear the witch's cry
break in the moonlight through a sheet
of sugar: God rewards.
Her tongue shrivels into gas..........
Now, far from women's arms
and memory of women, in our father's hut
we sleep, are never hungry.
Why do I not forget?
My father bars the door, bar harm
from his house, and it is years.
No one remembers. Even you, my brother,
summer afternoons you look at me as though
you meant to leave,
as though it never happened.
But I killed for you. I see armed firs,
the spires of that gleaning kiln---
Nights I turn to you to hold me
but you are not there.
Am I alone? Spies
hiss in the stillness, Hansel,
we are there still and it is real, real,
that black forest and the fire in earnest.
© Louise Gluck
A touching poem about teachers, students and war.
He wasn’t even one of my students
Just one of my advisees, a shy fellow
And a slow talker. When he first came in
Two semesters ago, I thought he was slow
In other ways too, but his grades
Have been strong. He’s smart enough.
Today, he came to say he’s been called up
With the local National Guard unit,
Boys from Mattoon, Neoga, and Tuscola,
Boys from small farms and small towns,
And he was worried about his registration
For classes next semester. Would he be able
To cancel it and get his tuition money back?
I called the registration office. He wasn’t
Their first, and I told him what they told me.
You’ll need to sign some forms, and cancel
Your housing and then check in with the cashier.
And he thanked me for helping, but I couldn’t
Speak, so I just took his hand in mine, and held it.
© John Guzlowski, 2003
THE DEATH OF BENNY PARET
If there was ever a prose passage that could be called an absolute knockout it has to be Norman Mailer's description of the death in the ring of boxer Benny Paret. Mailer takes you there and makes you feel every horrifying moment.
THE DEATH OF BENNY PARET
Paret was a Cuban, a proud club fighter who had become welterweight champion because of his unusual ability to take a punch. His style of fighting was to take three punches to the head in order to give back two. At the end of ten rounds, he would still be bouncing, his opponent would have a headache. But in the last two years, over fifteen-round fights, he had started to take some bad maulings.
This fight had its turns, Griffith won most of the early rounds, but Paret knocked Griffith down in the sixth. Griffith had trouble getting up, but made it, came alive and was dominating Paret again before the round was over. Then Paret began to wilt. In the middle of the eighth round, after a clubbing punch had turned his back to Griffith, Paret walked three disgusted steps away, showing his hindquarters. For a champion, he took much too long to turn back around. It was the first hint of weakness Paret had ever shown, and it must have inspired a particular shame, because he fought the rest of the fight as if he were seeking to demonstrate that he could take more punishment than any man alive. In the twelfth, Griffith caught him. Paret got trapped in the corner. Trying to duck away, his left arm and his head became tangled on the wrong side of the top rope. Griffith was like a cat ready to rip the life out of a huge boxed rat. He hit him eighteen right hands in a row, an act which took perhaps three or four seconds. Griffith making a pent-up whimpering sound all the while he attacked, the right hand whipping like a piston rod which has broken through the crankcase, or like a baseball bat demolishing a pumpkin. I was sitting in the second row of that corner--they were not ten feet away from me, and like everybody else, I was hypnotized. I had never seen one man hit another so hard and so many times. Over the referee’s face came a look of woe as if some spasm had passed its way though him, and then he leaped on Griffith to pull him away. It was the act of a brave man. Griffith was uncontrollable. His trainer leaped into the ring, his manager, his cut man, there were four people holding Griffith, but he was off on an orgy, he had left the Garden, he was back on a hoodlum’s street. If he had been able to break loose from his handlers and the referee, he would have jumped Paret to the floor and whaled on him there.
And Paret? Paret died on his feet. As he took those eighteen punches something happened to everyone who was in psychic range of the event. Some part of his death reached out to us. One felt it hover in the air. He was still standing in the ropes, trapped as he had been before, he gave some little half smile of regret, as if he were saying, “I didn’t know I was going to die just yet,” and then, his head leaning back but still erect, his death came to breathe about him, and he sank slowly to the floor. He went down more slowly than any fighter had ever gone down, he went down like a large ship which turns on end and slides second by second into its grave. As he went down, the sound of Griffith’s punches echoed in the mind like a heavy ax in the distance chopping into a wet log.
© Norman Mailer
THEY WERE VERY GOOD YEARS
An ardent and evocative tribute to Frank Sinatra. A classic in brevity and simplicity.
THEY WERE VERY GOOD YEARS
Frank Sinatra 1915-1998
Dancing was once so achingly romantic. A darkened room, warmed by dying fireplace embers and the tingling promise of passion. A candle on the mantelpiece sending its own dancing light across the walls. A man and a woman embracing in the center of the room, eyes closed and cheeks touching.
They move and sway, becoming one flowing, lovely shadow. A soft baritone voice, gentle, pensive and miraculously, an instant and a half behind the beat, washes over them. The voice is understated, elegant, and above all, so wonderfully comfortable.
It was, by any measure, witchcraft, a musical elixir powerful enough to make waltzers of clumsy, careworn men and coquettes of women wearied by chores and children. In this room, on this night, they are only two souls, welded to one another by music and mood.
God bless You Frank Sinatra.
He is dead at 82. Long before he swaggered into movies or tough-guyed his way into the Rat Pack role that came to define the second half of his life, he was the background music for an entire nation as it thrilled in quiet parlors and darkened cars.
© Chicago Tribune
OH, AMERICA WHEN YOU AND I WERE YOUNG
Barzini uses the genre of the memoir to make some very perceptive observations on Americans and their sometimes provincial world views.
OH, AMERICA WHEN YOU AND I WERE YOUNG
But the madelaine of that first day (possibly as important and pregnant with significance as the white words of warning on the green slope), the sensation which still reminds me of the United States of that August afternoon in 1925 every time I experience it again, and from which, in the ensuring years, I drew and endless chain of deductions about the nature of life in America, was my first dish of American ice cream. In a way, as I will show, it assumed the importance of a national symbol. In the soda parlor where Father had taken us, not far from our house, the pert and impatient waitress, her red brown hair permanently curled like Astrakan fur, presented us with what I learned later was one of dilemmas hovering persistently over American life: “Chocolate or vanilla?” We choose vanilla. The aroma was very agreeable but had no resemblance whatever to vanilla. In fact, it did not even try to imitate vanilla. We all knew the real taste well, of course. Vanilla was a small dark dry pod, imported from the Orient, which Mother usually kept in the jar with the powdered sugar. Like any product made by nature, it is always slightly unpredictable. Just as the bouquet of wine and the taste of country honey changed from year to year and from spot to spot, one specimen of real vanilla is always perceptibly more pungent or fainter, smelling more like gardenia, a carnation, or whatever other specimens, and the unexpected variation is somehow part of the pleasure.
What the waitress called vanilla without hesitation evidently was a slipshod attempt, which has clearly missed its mark, to approach the natural taste chemically. It was (as I learned in the next few days, when I tried cakes, biscuits, apple pie, and more ice cream) as implacably unvarying as the smell of commercial brands of soap. Maybe (I reflected later) American chemists were wizards, one generation or two ahead of their European counterparts, but unfortunately had wooden palates; maybe they, like all Americans, were too impatient, too eager to proclaim their success; maybe they were too easily satisfied, and, like the American inventers of “invisible” wigs, improbable hair dyes, and preposterous dentures, has stooped work too soon; or maybe that was, at that stage in the ineluctable march of human progress, the best that could be done. I also wondered (having read Upton Sinclair) whether that particular flavor might not have been forced, for some sordid reason, on the guileless America public by the faceless conspiracy of greedy monopolists.
Presumably, I speculated later, the acceptance of their own improbable vanilla had taken time. In the beginning, years before, I imagined, most Americans surely could still distinguish the real from the sham, but, as time passed, the chemical flavor gradually became the real thing, the one and only vanilla. After all, what is vanilla, or anything else for that matter but what people think it is? Perhaps a few obstinate snobs, proud of their epicurean European habits, a few maniacal Nature lovers, and stubborn immigrants clung to the taste of the Oriental bean, which in the end could probably be bought only in fewer and fewer exotic and esoteric little out-of-the-way-shops. Surely the sons of the immigrants were ashamed of the natural flavor and brutally forced the primitive parents to abandon the old and adopt the new progressive America vanilla and like it. Americans traveling abroad, when suddenly faced with the genuine spice, were probably started and vaguely disgusted. “What is this bizarre flavor?” they would diffidently and sternly ask the foreign waiter. “Vanilla, you say? Preposterous. Who do you take us for? We are not fools. We know vanilla when we taste it!”
But all this was not the point. I had to admit that everyone everywhere relished strange flavors and pined for them on their travels. The Milanese love their yellow risotto with saffron, which definitely reeks of iodine; the Irish love carrageen, a trembling pale green bavaroise-like jelly made of seaweed; people from the Near East far from home miss the all-pervasive smell of rancid mutton fat. What was strange about Americans liking their own vanilla, which was far from unpleasant anyway? The real point was that they called it “vanilla” tout court, and not one of those fancy mouth-watering names their experts invented all the time. The real point, and a puzzling one, was that Americans seemed to believe it was vanilla, the true and only vanilla, and that anything else was but an imperfect and unreliable approach to their own, the perfect Platonic idea, the eternally unvarying vanilla. Maybe Americans at time preferred to surround themselves with a picture of the world, a conception of man and history, of their own making, as reliable and constant as their vanilla, and to reject the unpredictable and treacherous reality. They liked to inhabit a mental Disneyland which would reassure but could also deceive them and occasionally lead to disaster.
© Luigi Barzini
From SPEAK, MEMORY
One of the great writers of the century uses the life span of his child to recall the early days of Nazi Germany and the haunting reality of the atomic age.
From SPEAK, MEMORY
They are passing, posthaste, posthaste, the gliding years—to use a soul-rending Horatian inflection. The years are passing, my dear, and presently nobody will know what you and I know. Our child is growing; the roses of Paestum, of misty Pasteum, are gone; mechanically minded idiots are tinkering and tampering with forces of nature that mild mathematicians, to their own secret surprise, appear to have foreshadowed; so perhaps it is time we examined ancient snapshots, cave drawings of trains and planes, strata of toys in the lumbered closet.
We shall go still further back, to a morning in May, 1934, and plot with respect to this fixed point the graph of a section of Berlin. There I was walking home, a 5 A. M., from the maternity hospital near Bayerischer Platz, to which I had taken you a couple hours earlier. Spring flowers adorned the portraits of Hindenburg and Hitler in the window of a shop that sold frames and colored photographs. Leftist groups of sparrows were holding loud morning sessions in lilacs and limes. A limpid dawn had completely unsheathed one side of the empty street. On the other side the houses looked blue with cold, and various long shadows were gradually being telescoped, in the matter-of-fact manner young day has when taking over from night in a well-groomed, well-watered city, where the tang of tarred pavements underlies the sappy smells of shade trees; but to me the optical part of the business seemed quite knew, like some unusual way of laying the table, because I had never seen that particular street at daybreak before, although, on the other hand, I had often passed there, childless, on sunny evenings.
In the purity and vacuity of the less familiar hour, the shadows were on the wrong side of the street, investing it with a sense of not inelegant inversion, as when one sees reflected in the mirror of a barbershop the window toward which the melancholy barber, while stropping his razor, turns his gaze (as they all do at such times), and, framed in that reflected window, a stretch of sidewalk shunting a procession of unconcerned pedestrians in the wrong direction, into an abstract world that all at once stops being droll and loosens a torrent of terror.
© Vladamir Nabokov
An absolute knockout narrative that should be read aloud in the classic Walter Winchell staccato style. It doesn't stop until the final kick the teeth at the last line.
Herman Melville was born in New York August 1, 1819, and on the 12th of that month, the Essex, a well-found whaler of 238 tons, sailed from Nantucket with George Pollard Jr. as captain, Owen Chase and Matthew Joy mates, 6 or her complement of 20 men Negroes, bound for the Pacific ocean, victualled and provided for two years and a half.
A year and three months later, on November 20, 1820, just south of the equator in longitude 119 West, this ship, on a calm day, with the sun at ease, was struck head on twice by a bull sperm whale, a spermaceti about 85 feet long, and with her bows stove in, filled and sank.
Her twenty men set out in three open whaleboats for the coast of South America 2000 miles away. They had bread (200 lb. a boat), water (65 gallons), and some Galapagos turtles. Although they were at the time no great distance from Tahiti, they were ignorant of the temper of the natives and feared cannibalism.
Their first sufferings commenced a week later when they made the mistake of eating, in order to make their supply last, some bread which has got soaked by the sea’s wash. To alleviate the thirst which followed, they killed turtle for its blood. The sight revolted the stomachs of the men.
In the first weeks of December their lips began to crack and swell, and a glutinous saliva collected in the mouth, intolerable to the taste.
Their bodies commenced to waste away, and possessed so little strength they had to assist each other in performing some of the body’s weakest functions. Barnacles collected on the boats’ bottoms, and they tore them off for food. A few flying fish struck their sails, fell into the boats, and were swallowed raw.
After a month of the open sea they were gladdened by the sight of a small island which they took to be Ducie but was Elizabeth Isle. Currents and storm had taken them a thousand miles off their course.
They found water on an island after a futile search for it from some rocks which they picked at, where moisture was, with their hatchets. It was discovered in a small spring in the sand at the extreme verge of betide. They could gather it only in low water. The rest of the time the sea flowed over the spring to the depth of six feet.
Twenty men could not survive on the island and, to give themselves the chance to reach the mainland before the supplies they had from the ship should be gone, seventeen of them put back to sea December 27th.
The three who stayed, Thomas Chapple of Plymouth, England, and William Wright and Seth Weeks of Barnstable, Mass., took shelter in caves among the rocks. In one they found eight human skeletons, side by side as though they had lain down and died together.
The only food the three had was a sort of blackbird which they caught when at roost in the trees and whose blood they sucked. With the meat of the bird, and a few eggs, they chewed a plant in the crevices of the rocks. They survived.
The three boats, with the seventeen men divided among them, moved under the sun across the ocean together until the 12th of January when, during the night, the one under the command of Own Chases, First Mate, became separated from the other two.
Already one of the seventeen died, Matthew Joy, Second Mate. He had been buried January 10th. When Charles Shorter. Negro, out of the same boat as Joy, died on January 23rd, his body was shared among the men of that boat and the Captain’s and eaten. Two days more and Lawson Thomas, Negro, died and was eaten. Again, two days and Isaac Shepard, Negro, died and was eaten. The bodies were roasted to dryness by means of fire kindles on the ballast sand at the bottom of the boats.
Two days later, the 29th, during the night, the boat which had been Matthew Joy’s got separated from the Captain’s and was never heard of again. When she disappeared three men still lived, William Bond, Negro, Obed Henricks, and Joseph West.
In the Captain’s boat now alone on the sea, four men kept on. The fifth. Samuel Reed, Negro, had been eaten for strength at his death the day before. Within three days these four men, calculating the miles they had to go, decided to draw two lots, one to choose who should die that the others might live, and one to choose who should kill him. The youngest, Owen Coffin, serving on his first voyage as a cabin boy to learn his family’s trade, lost. It became the duty of Charles Ramsdale, also of Nantucket, to shoot him. He did, and he, and Captain and Brazilla Wade, Nantucket, ate him.
That was February 1, 1821. On February 11th, Ray died of himself, and was eaten. On February 23rd, the Captain and Ramsdale were picked up by the Nantucket whaleship, Dauphin, Captain Zimri Coffin.
The men in the third boat, under the command of Owen Chase, the first mate, held out the longest. They had become separated from the other two boats before hunger and thirst had driven any of the Essex’s men to extremity. Owen Chase's crew had buried their first death, Richard Peterson, Negro, on January 20th.
It was not until February 8th, when Isaac Cole died in convulsions, that Owen Chase was forced, some two weeks later than the men in the other boats, to propose to his two men, Benjamin Lawrence and Thomas Nickerson, that they should eat of their own flesh. It happened to them this once, in this way: they separated the limbs from the body, and cut all the flesh from the bones, after which they opened the body, took out the heart, closed the body again, sewed it up as well as they could, and committed it to the sea.
They drank of the heart and ate it. They ate a few pieces of flesh and hung the rest, cut in thin strips, to dry in the sun. They made a fire, as the Captain had, and roasted some to serve them the next day.
The next morning they found that the flesh in the sun had spoiled, had turned green. They made another fire to cook it to prevent its being wholly lost. For five days they lived on it, not using their remnant of bread.
They recruited their strength on the flesh, eating it in small pieces with salt water. By the 14th they were able to make a few attempts at guiding the boat with an oar.
On the 15th the flesh was all consumed and they had left the last of their bread, two seas biscuits. Their limbs had swelled during the last two days and now began to pain them excessively. They judged they still had 300 miles to go.
On the 17th the settling of a cloud led Chase to think that land was near. Notwithstanding, the next morning, Nickerson, 17 years of age, after having bailed the boats, lay down, drew a piece of canvas up over him, and said that he then wished to die immediately. On the 19th, at 7 in the morning, Lawrence saw a sail at seven miles, and the three of them were taken up by the brig Indian of London, Captain William Croier.
It is not known what happened in later year to the three men who survived the island. But the four Nantucket men who, with the Captain, survived the sea, all became captains themselves. They died old, Nickerson at 77, Ramsdale, who was 19 on the Essex, at 75, Chase who was 24, at 73, Lawrence who was 30, at 80, and Pollard, the captain, who had been 31 at the time, lived until 1870, age 81.
The Captain, on his return to Nantucket, took charge of the ship Two Brothers, another whaler, and five months from home struck a reef to the westward of the Sandwich Islands. The ship was a total loss, and Pollard never went to sea again. At the time of the second wreck he said: “Now I am utterly ruined. No owner will ever trust me with a whaler again, for all will say that I am an unlucky man.” He ended his life as the night watch of Nantucket town, protecting the houses and people in the dark.
Owen Chase was always fortunate. In 1832 the Charles Carrol was built for him on Brant Point, Nantucket, and he filled her twice, each time with 2500 barrels of sperm oil. In his last years he took to hiding food in the attic of his house.
© Paul Metcalf
“NEAR A CHURCH” from LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN
A few ambiguous physical gestures during a casual encounter on a road reveals the ever present fear black people had in the racist south of the 1930’s and Agee’s revulsion and guilt over his inability to do anything about it. Notice the precision of description and the attention to detail in both the church and the couple.
“NEAR A CHURCH” from LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN
By James Agee
It was a good enough church from the moment the curve opened and we saw it that I slowed a little and we kept our eyes on it. But as we came even with it the light so held it that it shocked us with its goodness straight through the body, so that at the same time we said Jesus. I put on the brakes and backed the car slowly, watching the light on the building, until we were at the same apex, and we sat still for a couple of minutes at least before getting out, studying in arrest what had hit us so hard as we slowed past it perpendicular.
It lost nothing at all in stasis, but even more powerfully strove in through the eyes its paralyzing classicism: stood from scoured clay, a light lift above us, no trees near, and few weeds; every grain, each nailhead, distinct; the subtle almost strangling strong asymmetries of that which had been hand wrought toward symmetry (as if it were an earnest description, better than the intended object): so intensely sprung against so scarcely eccentric a balance that my hands of themselves spread out their bones, trying to regiment on air between their strengths its tensions and their mutual structures as they stood subject to the only scarcely eccentric, almost annihilating stress, of the serene, wild, rigorous light: empty, shut, bolted, of all that was now withdrawn from it upon the fields the utter statement, God’s mask and wooden skull and home stood empty in the meditation of the sun: and this light upon it was strengthening still further its imposal and embrace, and in about a quarter of an hour would have trained itself ready, and there would be a triple convergence in the keen historic spasm of the shutter.
I helped get the camera ready and we stood away and I watched what would be trapped, possessed, fertilized, in the leisures and shyness which are a phase of all love for any object: searching out and registering in myself all its lines, planes, stresses of relationship, along diagonals withdrawn and approached, and vertical to the slightly off-centered door, and broadside, and at several distances, and near, examining merely the ways of the wood, and the nails, the three new boards of differing lengths that were let in above the left of the door, the staring small white porcelain knob, the solesmooth stairlifts, the wrung stance of thick steeple, the hewn wood stoblike spike at sky, the old hasp and new padlock, the randomshuttered windowglass whose panes were like the surface of springs, the fat gold fly who sang and botched against a bright pane within, and within, the rigid benches, box organ, bright stops, hung charts, wrecked hymnals, the platform, pine lectern doilied, pressed-glass pitcher, suspended lamp, four funeral chairs, the little stove with long swan throat aluminum in the hard sober shade, a button in sun, a flur of lint, a torn card of Jesus among children:
While we were wondering whether to force open a window, a young Negro couple came past up the road. Without appearing to look either longer or less long, or with more or less interest, than a white man might care for, and without altering their pace, they made a thorough observation of us, of the car and of the tripod and camera. We spoke and nodded, smiling as if casually; they spoke and nodded, gravely, as they passed, and glanced back once, not secretly, nor long, nor in amusement. They made us, in spite of our knowledge of our own meanings, ashamed and insecure in our wish to break into and posses their church, and after a minute or two I decided to go after them, and speak to them, and ask them if they knew where we might find a minister or some other person who might let us in, if it would be all right. They were fifty yards or so up the road, walking leisurely, and following them. I watch aspects of them which are less easily seen (as surrounding objects are masked by looking into the light) when one’s own eyes and face and the eyes and face of another are mutually visible and appraising. They were young, soberly buoyant of body, and strong, the man not quote thin, the girl not quite plump, and I remembered their mild and sober faces, hers softly wide and sensitive to love and to pleasure, and his resourceful and intelligent without intellect and without guile, and their extreme dignity, which was as effortless, unvalued, and undefended in them as the assumption of superiority which suffuses a rich and social adolescent boy; and I was taking pleasure also in the competence and rhythm of their walking in the sun, which was incapable of being less than a muted dancing, and in the beauty in the sunlight of their clothes, which were strange upon them in the middle of the week. He was in dark trousers, black dress shoes, a new-laundered white shirt with lights of bluing in it, and a light yellow soft straw hat with a board band of dark flowered cloth and a daisy in the band; she glossy-legged without stockings, in freshly whited pumps. A flowered pink cotton dress, and a great sun of straw set far back on her head. Their swung hands touched gently with their walking, stride by stride, but did not engage. I was walking more rapidly than they but quietly; before I had gone ten steps they turned their heads (toward each other) and looked at me briefly and impersonally, like horses in a field, and faced front again; and this, I am almost certain, not through having heard sound of me, but through a subtler sense. By the time I raised my head, they had looked away, and did not see me, though nothing in their looking had been quick with abruptness or surreptition. I walked somewhat faster now, but I was overtaking them a little slowly for my patience; the light would be right now or very soon; I had no doubt Walker would do what he wanted whether we had ‘permission’ or not, but I wanted to be on hand and broke into a trot. At the sound of the twist in my shoe in the gravel, the young woman’s whole body was jerked down tight as a fist into a crouch from which immediately, the rear foot skidding in the loose stone so that she nearly fell, like a kicked cow scrambling out of a creek, eyes crazy, chin stretched tight, she sprang forward into the first motions of a running not human but that of a suddenly terrified wild animal. In this same instant the young man froze, the emblems of sense in his wild face wide open toward me, his right hand stiff toward the girl who, after a few strides, her consciousness overtaking her reflex, shambled to a stop and stood, not straight but sick, as if hung from a hook in the spine of the will, not to fall for weakness, while he hurried to her and put his hand on her flowered shoulder and, inclining his head forward and sideways as if listening, spoke with her, and they lifted, and watched me while, shaking my head, and raising my hand palm outward, I came up to them (not trotting) and stopped a yard short of where they, closely, not touching now, stood, and said, still shaking my head (No; no; oh, Jesus, no, no, no!) and looking into their eyes; at the man, who was not knowing what to do, and at the girl, whose eyes were lined with tears, and who was trying so hard to subdue the shaking in her breath, and whose heart I could feel, though not hear, blasting as if it were my whole body, and I trying in some fool way to keep it somehow relatively light, because I could not bear that they should receive from me any added reflection of the shattering of their grace and dignity, and of the nakedness and depth and meaning of their fear, and of my horror and pity and self-hatred; and so, smiling, and so distressed that I wanted only that they should be restored, and should know I was their friend, and that I might melt from existence: ‘I’m very sorry! I’m very sorry if I scared you! I didn’t mean to scare you at all. I wouldn’t have done such a thing for anything.’
They just kept looking at me. There was no more for them to say than to me. The least I could have done was throw myself flat on my face and embrace and kiss their feet. That impulse took hold of me so powerfully, from my whole body, not by thought, that I caught myself from doing it exactly and as scarcely as you snatch yourself from jumping from the sheer height: here, with the realization that it would have frightened them still worse (to say nothing of me) and would have been still explicable; so that I stood and looked into their eyes and loved them, and wished to God I was dead. After a little the man got back his voice, his eyes grew a little easier, and he said without conviction that it was all right and that I hadn’t scared her. She shook her head slowly, eyes on mine; she did not yet trust her voice. Their faces were secret soft, utterly without trust of me, and utterly without understanding; and they had to stand here now and hear what I was saying, because in that country no Negro safely walks away from a white man, or even appears not to listen while he is talking, and because I could not walk away abruptly, and relieve them of me, without still worse a crime against nature than the one I had committed, and the second I was committing by staying, and holding them. And so, and in this horrid grinning of faked casualness, I gave them a better reason why I had followed them that to frighten them, asked what I had followed them to ask; they said the thing it is usually safest for negroes to say, that they did not know; I thanked them very much, and was seized once more and beyond resistance with the wish to clarify and set right, so that again, with my eyes and smile wretched and out of key with all that I was able to say, I said I was awfully sorry if I had bothered them; but they only retreated still more profoundly behind their faces, their eyes watching mine as if awaiting any sudden move they must ward, and the young man said again that that was all right, and I nodded, and turned away from them, and walked down the road without looking back.
© James Agee, Houghton Mifflin Company
An unusual and provocative portrait of a personality type from one of the foremost literary critics and philosophers of the 20th century.
THE DESTRUCTIVE CHARACTER
By Walter Benjamin
It could happen to someone looking back over his life that he realized that almost all the deeper obligations he had endured in its course originated in people whose “destructive character” everyone agreed. He would stumble on this fact one day, perhaps by chance, and the heavier the blow it deals him, the better are his chances of picturing the destructive character.
The destructive character knows only one watchword: make room; only oner activity: clearing way. His need for fresh air and open space is stronger than any hatred.
The destructive character is young and cheerful. For destroying rejuvenates in clearing away the traces of our own age; it cheers because everything cleared away mean to the destroyer a complete reduction, indeed eradication, of his own condition. But what contributes most of all to this Apollonian image of the destroyer is the realization of how immensely the world is simplified when tested for its worthiness of destruction. This is the great bond embracing the unifying all that exists. It is a sight that affords the destructive character a spectacle of deepest harmony.
The destructive character is always blithely at work. It is nature that dictates his temp, indirectly at least, for he must forestall her. Otherwise she will take over the destruction herself.
No vision inspires the destructive character He has few needs, and the least of them is to know what will replace what has been destroyed. First of all, for a moment at least, empty space, the place where the thing stood or the victim lived. Someone is sure to be found who needs this space without its being filed.
The destructive character does his work, the only work he avoids is being creative. Just as the creator seeks solitude, the destroyer mist be constantly surrounded by people, witness to his efficacy.
The destructive character is a signal. Just as a trigonometric sign is exposed on all sides to the wind, so is he to rumor. To protect him from it is pointless.
The destructive character has no interest in being understood. Attempts in this direction he regards as superficial. Being misunderstood cannot harm him. On the contrary, he provokes it, just as oracles, those destructive institutions of the state, provoked it. The most petit bourgeois of all phenomena, gossip, comes about only because people do not wish to be misunderstood. The destructive character tolerates misunderstanding; he does not promote gossip.
The destructive character is the enemy of the etui-man. The etui-man looks for comfort, and the case is its quintessence. The inside of the case of the velvet-lined track that he has imprinted on the world. The destructive character obliterates even the traces of destruction.
The destructive character stands in the front line of the traditionalist. Some pass things down to posterity, by making them untouchable and thus conserving them, others pass on situations, by making them practicable and thus liquidating them. The latter are called destructive.
The destructive character has the consciousness of historical man, whose deepest emotion is an insuperable mistrust of the course of things and a readiness at all times to recognize that everything can go wrong. Therefore the destructive is reliability itself.
The destructive character sees nothing permanent. But for this very reason he sees ways everywhere. Where others encounter walls or mountains, there, too, he sees a way. But because he sees a way everywhere, he has to clear things from it everywhere. Not always by brute force; sometimes by the most refined. Because se sees ways everywhere, eh always positions himself at crossroads. No moment can know what the next will bring. What exits he reduces to rubble, not for the sake of rubble, but for that of the way leading through it. The destructive character lives from the feeling, not that life is worth living, but that suicide is not worth the trouble.
© Walter Benjamin
TWO EXCERPTS FROM "THE JUNGLE"
The Pure Food and Drug Act was passed because of excerpts like this from "The Jungle" This was truly a book that changed history.
from "The Jungle"
by Upton Sinclair
From Chapter 13 of “The Jungle”
The sausage-room was an interesting place to visit, for two or three minutes, and provided that you did not look at the people; the machines were perhaps the most wonderful things in the entire plant. Presumably sausages were once chopped and stuffed by hand, and if so it would be interesting to know how many workers had been displaced by these inventions. On one side of the room were the hoppers, into which men shoveled loads of meat and wheelbarrows full of spices; in these great bowls were whirling knives that made two thousand revolutions a minute, and when the meat was ground fine and adulterated with potato flour, and well mixed with water, it was forced to the stuffing machines on the other side of the room. The latter were tended by women; there was a sort of spout, like the nozzle of a hose, and one of the women would take a long string of "casing" and put the end over the nozzle and then work the whole thing on, as one works on the finger of a tight glove. This string would be twenty or thirty feet long, but the woman would have it all on in a jiffy; and when she had several on, she would press a lever, and a stream of sausage meat would be shot out, taking the casing with it as it came. Thus one might stand and see appear, miraculously born from the machine, a wriggling snake of sausage of incredible length. In front was a big pan which caught these creatures, and two more women who seized them as fast as they appeared and twisted them into links. This was for the uninitiated the most perplexing work of all; for all that the woman had to give was a single turn of the wrist; and in some way she contrived to give it so that instead of an endless chain of sausages, one after another, there grew under her hands a bunch of strings, all dangling from a single center. It was quite like the feat of a prestidigitator--for the woman worked so fast that the eye could literally not follow her, and there was only a mist of motion, and tangle after tangle of sausages appearing. In the midst of the mist, however, the visitor would suddenly notice the tense set face, with the two wrinkles graven in the forehead, and the ghastly pallor of the cheeks; and then he would suddenly recollect that it was time he was going on. The woman did not go on; she stayed right there--hour after hour, day after day, year after year, twisting sausage links and racing with death. It was piecework, and she was apt to have a family to keep alive; and stern and ruthless economic laws had arranged it that she could only do this by working just as she did, with all her soul upon her work, and with never an instant for a glance at the well-dressed ladies and gentlemen who came to stare at her, as at some wild beast in a menagerie.
From Chapter 14 of “The Jungle.”
With one member trimming beef in a cannery, and another working in a sausage factory, the family had a first-hand knowledge of the great majority of Packingtown swindles. For it was the custom, as they found, whenever meat was so spoiled that it could not be used for anything else, either to can it or else to chop it up into sausage. With what had been told them by Jonas, who had worked in the pickle rooms, they could now study the whole of the spoiled-meat industry on the inside, and read a new and grim meaning into that old Packingtown jest – that they use everything of the pig except the squeal.
Jonas had told them how the meat that was taken out of pickle would often be found sour, and how they would rub it up with soda to take away the smell, and sell it to be eaten on free-lunch counters; also of all the miracles of chemistry which they performed, giving to any sort of meat, fresh or salted, whole or chopped, any color and any flavor and any odor they chose. In the pickling of hams they had an ingenious apparatus, by which they saved time and increased the capacity of the plant – a machine consisting of a hollow needle attached to a pump; by plunging this needle into the meat and working with his foot, a man could fill a ham with pickle in a few seconds. And yet, in spite of this, there would be hams found spoiled, some of them with an odor so bad that a man could hardly bear to be in the room with them. To pump into these the packers had a second and much stronger pickle which destroyed the odor – a process known to the workers as "giving them thirty per cent." Also, after the hams had been smoked, there would be found some that had gone to the bad. Formerly these had been sold as "Number Three Grade," but later on some ingenious person had hit upon a new device, and now they would extract the bone, about which the bad part generally lay, and insert in the hole a white-hot iron. After this invention there was no longer Number One, Two, and Three Grade – there was only Number One Grade. The packers were always originating such schemes – they had what they called "boneless hams," which were all the odds and ends of pork stuffed into casings; and "California hams," which were the shoulders, with big knuckle joints, and nearly all the meat cut out; and fancy "skinned hams," which were made of the oldest hogs, whose skins were so heavy and coarse that no one would buy them – that is, until they had been cooked and chopped fine and labeled "head cheese!"
It was only when the whole ham was spoiled that it came into the department of Elzbieta. Cut up by the two-thousand-revolutions- a-minute flyers, and mixed with half a ton of other meat, no odor that ever was in a ham could make any difference. There was never the least attention paid to what was cut up for sausage; there would come all the way back from Europe old sausage that had been rejected, and that was moldy and white – it would be dosed with borax and glycerine, and dumped into the hoppers, and made over again for home consumption. There would be meat that had tumbled out on the floor, in the dirt and sawdust, where the workers had tramped and spit uncounted billions of consumption germs. There would be meat stored in great piles in rooms; and the water from leaky roofs would drip over it, and thousands of rats would race about on it. It was too dark in these storage places to see well, but a man could run his hand over these piles of meat and sweep off handfuls of the dried dung of rats. These rats were nuisances, and the packers would put poisoned bread out for them; they would die, and then rats, bread, and meat would go into the hoppers together. This is no fairy story and no joke; the meat would be shoveled into carts, and the man who did the shoveling would not trouble to lift out a rat even when he saw one – there were things that went into the sausage in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit. There was no place for the men to wash their hands before they ate their dinner, and so they made a practice of washing them in the water that was to be ladled into the sausage. There were the butt-ends of smoked meat, and the scraps of corned beef, and all the odds and ends of the waste of the plants, that would be dumped into old barrels in the cellar and left there. Under the system of rigid economy which the packers enforced, there were some jobs that it only paid to do once in a long time, and among these was the cleaning out of the waste barrels. Every spring they did it; and in the barrels would be dirt and rust and old nails and stale water – and cartload after cartload of it would be taken up and dumped into the hoppers with fresh meat, and sent out to the public's breakfast. Some of it they would make into "smoked" sausage – but as the smoking took time, and was therefore expensive, they would call upon their chemistry department, and preserve it with borax and color it with gelatine to make it brown. All of their sausage came out of the same bowl, but when they came to wrap it they would stamp some of it "special," and for this they would charge two cents more a pound.
THE SOON TO BE FAMOUS
Sleeping With the Angels by Laura Garcia
I Play Cog Hill at Midnight by Vedran Agivic
In Time by Bernadette Sral
The Muzzle Loading Rifle Competition by Chris Perez
Catches Your Eye by Isiah Santopoalo
50's Rule by Jonathan Velez
July Kansas by Fabiola Yanez
Confessions of a Card Club CEO by Joseph Bradley
Equations of Paris by Valerie Giraldez
The American Spirit by Claudia Thomas
Returning by Pavle Slankamenac
SLEEPING WITH THE ANGELS
A few years ago I read passages from a book called TO SLEEP WITH THE ANGELS to my sophomore class. It was about the Our Lady of Angels fire of 1959. Here is Laura's reaction. I really like the immediacy she creates with the switch to present tense half-way through.
SLEEPING WITH THE ANGELS
by Laura Garcia
Coats were grabbed in a hurry as children ran out in a disorderly fashion. A fire truck pulled up at the corner of the school. Teachers tried to control the students so they could take attendance but none would listen. Finally, my teacher lost her patience and scolded the class. It was cold outside and the giggles has stopped. Everyone in Sr. Shawn's fifth grade class fell back in line silently. We all heard the speech that she gave every time we goofed off during a fire drill. Embarrassment crept upon me and I knew what was about to happen.
I passed by my teacher's desk as I walked to my seat. I stared at the little girl's smile as I looked at the picture on her desk, and tears started to well up in my eyes. Sr. Shawn walked in and everyone knew better than to speak. She just stood there an inhaled a deep breath, then she slowly sat down. She told us the importance of following the rules and that the fire drills were for our safety and well-being. Some students looked nervously at Sr. Shawn, while others twiddled their thumbs.
Finally, she begins her tail. She takes us back to when she is a young girl, talking and giggling. She takes us back to that one fateful morning when she says goodbye to her parents as she and her sister, Sarah, walk to school. When they arrive they go their separate ways to greet their own group of friends.
She pauses to take another breath and her tone of voice changes. She starts again. She tells how during one of her classes she sees smoke and everyone runs out quickly. She starts to panic as she sees kids, one after another, jump to their deaths from high above. Her sister immediately comes to mind. Sarah is on the upper level of the school. She chokes on her words as she describes the horror of seeing such a sight. Firefighters bring out bodies and stretchers and she hopes none will be Sarah. The children are being sent home to their parents. Everyone gathers at church to pray. The phone rings and the bad news is delivered. Sarah is dead. Her remains have to be cremated because her body is burnt beyond recognition.
By this time Sr. Shawn's face was red and tears streamed down her cheeks. My own head was tucked under my arms to hide my tears. It was hard to imagine that not even prayers to God could shield people from something like this.
This moment was one of many rude awakenings for me. I had always been taught in school that God was the answer to everything. Hearing this horrid tragedy changed my whole perspective on religion and life. Sr. Shawn's story did not really teach me the lesson she had hoped for--to be obedient and follow the rules. Instead it taught me another lesson--life is not what it seems to be, but rather an illusion that can change with the slightest disturbance of the mind.
All this happened five years ago. I never really thought about it much until my English teacher read us a passage from a book, To Sleep With the Angels. This lesson that my fifth grade teacher had taught me had always been remembered, if unconsciously. It was not really brought up because it was such a terrible tragedy, but it still contributed to the way I thought about many things. Life is full of memories. Sr. Shawn had hers. I have mine. Some make you feel as if you have been hit in the stomach, but with each blow you grow stronger.
© Laura Garcia, 2000
I PLAY COG HILL AT MIDNIGHT
Vedran wasn't too cool in re-writing this poem a half-dozen times, but I insisted because it had real energy. He ended up winning a National Poetry award and getting published in a book with 100 other high school poets (chosen from 7,000!) which was then presented to first lady Hillary Clinton.
I PLAY COG HILL AT MIDNIGHT
by Vedran Agovic
Your great logo represents
quality itself. I crush you
in the wind you
The fairway bent.
The water hazards shiny as crystal.
Above me the full moon reflects
a burning question: choice of clubs.
7 iron: the ball sprinkles itself onward
to be noticed as it lands
in the sand.
Out of the sand
it is still
On the green the cup white
as a lamb. I feel
the core's softness as I
miss the birdie putt.
© Vedran Agovic, 2000
Everything Bernadette wrote for me had style and substance. This memoir about an old man and baseball glove was no exception.
by Bernadette Sral
After a long day at work, I decided to sit on my front stairs and take a break. I began watching the neighborhood kids running around. They were arguing about some trivial rule in a game. I saw a little girl standing face to face with another boy, with her hands on her hips squealing, "But that's not fair!" I saw myself in that little girl. At that moment, I felt exactly how Marcel Proust did as he bit into the madeleine soaked in lime-flower tea. It was as if a hundred childhood memories were unlocked and revealed in the course of one second. Suddenly my memories returned. I remembered myself as a little girl running up and down the block with the neighborhood kids. We used to plays games like cops and robbers, tag and hide-and-go-seek in the dark. The rattle of cicada sounds filled the air and the twinkle of lightning bugs sprinkled the night. All of us kids grew up together knowing everything there was to know about each other. All of our families knew each other too. However, among all the fun and sense of unity, there was one disturbing thing: the man across the street.
No one knew exactly who he was or where he'd come from or even how long he had been there. All we knew was that he was a mysterious, weird old man. He owned the whole apartment building, but never rented out any of the apartments. To top that off, instead of living in one of the apartments, he lived in the basement. All of us kids were always afraid of him. When we played whiffle ball we always saw him peek through the Venetian blinds at us, just waiting for one of us to step on his immaculate lawn. I think that was the only time we ever saw him, when he ran out of his house to yell at us for stepping on the grass. Sometimes the ball fell into his bushes, and I was the one who had to go look for it. He would get so enraged with us he would take our balls and never give them back. We finally nicknamed him "The Old Geezer."
Then one day I heard that his wife died. He never yelled at us again from that day on. We all grew up, and some moved out of the neighborhood. We went our separate ways. I'm probably the only one that stayed. Then, a year or so ago, the most bizarre thing happened. I was practicing some pitching for the big play-off game the next day, and there he was, right in front of me. He was holding a white square box in his hand. But this wasn't the mean old geezer from my childhood; this was a little timid, lonesome man standing in front of me. At that moment I realized, I'm not a little kid anymore. He looked at me and said, "You're a lefty, right?" I nodded my head and stuttered yes. He handed me the box and I thanked him and he want away. I opened the box and just stood there looking at it. It the box was a raggedy antique left-handed baseball glove dating back to the early 1900's. A million questions flooded my mind. Where did he get it? Was it his? Was it a present to make up for all the balls he took from us? Why did he give it to me and not my brother? I don't ever think I'll have the guts to ask him.
I now work at the neighborhood drug store, and I see him some in everyone in a great while to check out the winning lottery numbers. I found out that his name is Michael Dawson. We talk for a little bit about baseball and then he leaves. I guess the old geezer is not a mystery anymore, but a new generation of kids on my block will have to figure that out for themselves.
© Bernadette Sral, 2000
THE MUZZLE LOADING RIFLE COMPETITION
I found this piece to be both matter-of-fact and powerful. It proves the old adage: "Just describe what you see."
THE MUZZLE LOADING RIFLE COMPETITION
By Chris Perez
The muzzle loading rifle is the kind of rifle that you load with black powder.
The guns are made of solid wood and iron.
The people who own these guns are white males.
Surrounding the 7 ranges where the competition takes place
is a huge flea market where you can buy wind-up monkeys
that dance La Macarena.
It is great to see traditions kept alive.
© Chris Perez
CATCHES YOUR EYE
Isaiah always wrote an an oblique angle to the subject, that was what always made his writing so interesting. This short short story has faint swirls of The Great Gatsby in it. And a touch of Borges.
CATCHES YOUR EYE
The attraction that he has towards this girl really baffles him at times. He tells me she does nothing for him physically or mentally. It's kind of strange and hard to pin point. What is he trying to do or say? He constantly tells me he is not compelled to ask her if she is interested in him because he says that he is not interested in her, at least I think that's what he means. He once told me she was not a real person and did not even exist. He said that she was a faint outline of what seemed to be a human being and moved "like a snake" with little or no expression.
I can tell he's been watching her though, but he does it with much caution. He conceals himself so we I guess that he tends to fool himself. He cannot deliver so much as a description of her because the information he has is fragmentary at best. He says he does not see her. I do not mean that he physically can't see her or that she does not exist. What I mean is that he says he can't see what is inside her. He was telling this story just the other day about how they were staring at each other in geometry class. He said they caught each other's eye and didn't let go for a long time. He started rambling on about how they were the only two in the room and it was totally silent while they spoke without words.
So he's talking to me and he tells me that he leaned his chin on the top of his fist. And the girl, who had her arms crossed on the desk, leaned down on them. He said they kept staring, eye to eye, up close and personal. Then he told me he felt like he was going to start crying because he was afraid of the look in her eyes. He told me it was just like the look this killer had in some 80's movie. Anyway he said her eyes were completely black. It was the same look the killer had and that terrified the hell out of him. That day he told me that the girl was bad news and we reconsidering his previous thoughts.
However, the next couple days things were still the same. Although he stayed his distance, he knew it was still going on and so did she. He kept throwing me these Zen statements about her. Those universal but never ending statements with no answers. One afternoon on the third floor hallway, he and I were on our way back from taking a TV to a room and she was wandering the halls, it seemed without reason. As she passed us she did not even notice him and she didn''t seem to care anymore, simply because he acted like he didn't care. At that moment he tried to keep going about his business. I remember him saying to me, "I'm gonna relax. Lay low. And find out what is inside first." After a week he comes to me with some good news and some bad news. The good news was he was right--she was bad news. She hung out with thugs, smoked, got drunk. She really didn't seem to care too much. "Great," I thought, "Now I don't have to hear him going on and on getting nowhere." The bad news was that he was still attracted to her. He said, "It almost feels magnetic. Like the planets are aligned or something."
Although she was the way she was, he kept on with this charade. The thought that there was something more inside that hollow shell she called a body intrigued him I guess. The idea that he could explore these things and maybe bring something out of her seemed to hold him, with a tight but unclear grip. On the train the other day he told me once again how she was not physically attractive, that mentally she was careless and socially she was in the wrong place, but he still thought he could make an impression. The problem was he didn't feel the need to because he couldn't find a legitimate reason to do it. The following day we were taking a test and he was sitting there daydreaming like God was in front of him. The teacher sent him down to the discipline office cause he couldn't concentrate on the task at hand.
He was failing his school work and constantly thinking about this girl. He started coming up with these crazy ideas. He wanted to write a story with her in it. He said something about he being the main character's best friend or being indirectly connected to the main character, like a cousin or something. Then he went on about how complex and in-depth his story was going to be.
"How in the world am I going to write about someone that I only know the bad side of?" he says. I tell him, "Well, that's a good reason to do some more research. He then says, "Man I gotta straighten up my act."
© Isaiah Santopoalo 2000
Jonathan was a sharp writer and never a shrinking violet when it came to the defense of his opinions. This award winning academic decathlon speech is a perfect example.
There is one thing I will never forgive my father for, one grudge I will always hold against him (even though it’s not his fault): He grew up in the 50’s--an era I don’t think can ever be topped. Oh yeah, I get the grand year 2001, big millennium…big whoop! I believe minister Joe Wright described the world I’m growing up in perfectly in last year’s opening prayer for the Kansas senate. He said, "We have exploited the poor and called it the 'lottery,' we have rewarded laziness and called it 'welfare,' we have killed our unborn and called it 'choice,' we have shot abortionists and called it 'justifiable,' we have neglected to discipline our children and called it 'building self-esteem,' we have abused power and called it 'politics,' we have coveted our neighbors possessions and called it 'ambition,' we have ridiculed the time honored values of our forefathers and called it 'enlightenment.' My surrounding society has two primary obsessions: money and sex. A couple of proofs are the TV show, "Bull" and Jennifer Lopez’s famous $2.00 curtain she wore to the awards (you know, the one that covered nothing but is now valued at some amount that could probably put me through college). On and on I could go…
Ohhhhh but the 50’s!!! A time of peace and honor. Obviously every era throughout history has not been without its faults; ours is not a perfect world. Joseph McCarthy was still running around with his communist papers and segregation was still a topic to be dealt with…but still, the fifties! What an era! I believe if you’ve seen the movie Pleasantville you saw one heck of a hyperbole but at least it shed some light into what I love about the 50’s. And what is it that I love about the 50’s? In a word: simplicity. Back then people didn’t have all the crazy distractions of today, where kids will ruin home to play their video game consoles or throw on their headphones so as to ignore their parents. Back then my Dad either had chores to do or a baseball game in need of playing. The simplicity also was evident in the true genius of car designers! Who would have thought chrome would look so gorgeous on an automobile, or the tail-end fins, or the idea of two tones!
Each of these simple "little things" served to make each car a unique masterpiece. My love for the 57’ Chevy Bel-Air is without ending. The simplicity of music. Elvis’ hit, "Jailhouse Rock" was just a three-cord song, but it was fun! So many big names during the 50’s: Elvis, Nat King Cole, The Everly Brothers, Frank Sinatra and many more, playing good, clean, fun, songs--songs that you could walk down the street and whistle or snap your fingers to. A transistor radio was equivalent to gold.
I think the greatest product of this simplicity was a quality of family unity. I know a few people who disgust me with their common day-to-day talk, always slandering their parents and down talking their siblings or describing the annoyance of their grandparents; always finding some complaint against their family and almost always for no reason. I wouldn’t trade three minutes with my brother for three years in paradise. I value all my relatives. They are the ones who will stick by me through thick and thin while all my "friends" drop like flies. Not to say I don’t value friendship (don’t get me wrong), but family is first in my book. Always.
We’ve been in a constant decline in society while our knowledge is seemingly exponential. We’ve lost our innocence, and it can’t be regained; there’s no way to unlearn, no turning back. Like all greedy people we had a good thing going and we found every justification to say it wasn’t good enough and look where we have landed. "Tolerance," I feel, is just a synonym, a hiding word for cowardice. Everything under the sun--right or wrong--is protected by our pretty little constitution that is re-analyzed and interpreted whenever it is politically convenient. I think Ricky Martin exemplified our modern day stupidity while discussing a music video of his (which is just like all the others: uncensored pornography). I believe he said, "Welcome to the year 2000." As if that justified it. Like, just because it’s the year 2000 immorality should be acceptable. What once was wrong is now ok because now in the year 2000 we are somehow better, more enlightened people.
I don’t get it!
I guess I was just born too late. At least--as the PT Cruiser has shown me--they’re starting to style cars like they used to!
© Jonathan Velez 2001
Fabi was playing with a thesaurus one day when this lovely poem discovered her.
Violets convey oats
to the constellation Cetus.
A beetle eats the Goldenrod
as Auriga covets Virgo’s sight.
The dainty Abyssinian flower
strains to the gruffness
of the singer’s song
for a bohemian life style.
By the light of the rising star
we hoped for the unfeasible
and flew like there was
no one behind us.
© Fabiola Yanez 2001
CONFESSIONS OF A CARD CLUB CEO
I think this piece by Joe is a fine example of dry irony.
CONFESSIONS OF A CARD CLUB CEO
The Playing Card Championship League was an original idea of mine that came to me in the mid-summer of last year. While the “league” thing was new, the “championship” part of it goes back to my freshmen year in high school where my friends and I would play Speed at lunch for the title of The Speedy Champion. While the basic concept of a league wasn’t entirely my doing, it was I who took the idea the next step further. At first it was just a fantasy, but then I decided to make it real. What follows is the true story of the events that took place in the Playing Card Championship League. From me. Its C.E.O. I was there through it all.
It started like this: Friends of my brother’s would come together on Friday nights to play card games for “championships.” There was Estabon--a somewhat cool guy who you could rely on, Christian--a really lazy dude who knew no fear and would do virtually anything you dared him to, and Noel--a young fellow, not very tall, but good at playing Speed. After a few weeks I decided to give these Friday nights a purpose. I created the PCCL. I put in rules and new twists on old games. After a few weeks in existence, we were playing for championships with actual medals. A week later, a new addition, Luis--a tall, noble soul who cared about all the people in the world--joined us. The future was looking bright. Things were only going to get better.
In the beginning, the only governmental system we had came from those with the championships. Whoever had a championship was able to decide how they could defend it and against whom. Because this system was often unfair and wrong, I decided that we would need a Commissioner to straighten things out. To be the Commissioner you had to be meticulous, invulnerable, scrupulous and omniscient. Since I was all of those, I made myself Commissioner. During this time, I wrote a rulebook that established the individual rights of every competitor in the league. As Commissioner I still had almost all the power, but I did give everyone say in things like how championships were to be defended and even when a new Commissioner would be chosen.
Six weeks from the start of all this, the time came for me to pass on my Commissioner powers to someone else--in this case, my brother. But before I did I made one last act as Commissioner--to ensure that I, with my belief in the interest of fairness and my great dedication to keeping the league alive, stayed in power. I amended the constitution slightly and crowned myself the Chief Executive Officer. Now everything would stay in balance. Everything would run smoothly, and everyone would be happy. Everyone did their part to keep the league alive, and with me in absolute power, all were treated fairly. No serf was left behind.
But with these good times came a poison that would eventually destroy the PCCL. It wasn’t cyanide, it wasn’t hemlock, it wasn’t nicotine. It was ennui. Even in its beginning there was a feeling in everyone that the PCCL would soon fade out, but we all ignored it and continued playing every Friday night. Perhaps it was my brother as the Commissioner. No one else was really up for doing it, and, at first, he seemed worthy. He would call up these people to come over, make sure we had new decks of cards, go to the corner and buy 2-liter sized Cokes, and adjust the volume of the stereo. After a few weeks, however, he showed his true colors. He stopped calling the players, let the cards get all greasy and bent, never went to the store, and didn’t even put on a CD. The PCCL had changed forever
I confronted him about this many times, but in the end it did nothing to motivate him to do his duties. Everyone has duties, I told him. For instance, I had to make more rules, for both the games and how to run the club. He seemed unconvinced. His laziness spread quickly to everyone else. By the two-month mark everyone had stopped coming. I would have stripped my brother of his Commissioner position, but I was too nice and fair. And he is my brother. In a matter of weeks everything was gone. Nobody cared. I spent Friday nights sleeping.
I still have the C.E.O. sign on my bedroom door, but it doesn’t mean anything now. I still play cards with some of the contestants, but there’s no purpose. Not like in our “salad days.” Players now stop in the middle of a game to watch World Wrestling Federation. I wonder. If I had been more demanding of my brother would things still have still fallen through? It’s hard to tell. But sometimes at night I still ask myself: is there no room on earth for a card league for 14 and 15 year olds?
Alas! The legendary two-month PCCL no longer exists. It was a golden era that can never be retrieved.
EQUATIONS OF PARIS
Valerie took John Ashbery's famous poem, a video I showed my students of trips I've taken to Paris and her own fertile imagination to produce this knockout meditation.
As I sit staring at the abyss of the blackboard, I wish I didn't
have to be in this meaningless math class, in useless panic
over this nonsensical equation exam.
Slowly I look out the worn windows and see the luscious
trees full of green leaves.
They swift so freely!
I feel as if they are mocking me because I am incarcerated here
while they are out there flowing with the wind.
They have no troubles!
And as I lay my head down to relax from this endless stress,
I begin to dream of another place distant from here.
Paris! The city of love!
Oh, how I admire it as I cavort through the metro tunnel without
a care in the world.
I hear exquisite music flowing around me.
I search for the face of the one who plays it, and I see a tall man
playing the violin with such raw intensity as his hands glide
effortlessly through the strings.
I stop for a moment and then move on, the tune still playing in my
I skip up the steep steps and before my eyes is the lovely Le Jardin
Coming towards me I see a small girl with pigtails walking with her
mother and her father by her side.
They each hold one of her hands.
She wears a long pink dress.
She's trying to hold a lollipop and it looks as if it is about to fall, but
her parents let go of her hands and the lollipop is safe for now.
Her parents rush her to the carousel for it is about to start.
I am in the middle of the summer carnival!
There's the Ferris wheel!
The cotton candy sellers!
And the clowns handing out balloons to children!
Everyone is here with their loved ones and I am alone, invisible in
the midst of it all, but I feel so in peace, and being alone does not
The sky is getting dusky so I begin to stroll towards the river.
As I walk along the quai, I see tourists on a blue-sky boat passing
They feel so eager to capture every possible moment with their cameras,
for they will leave soon.
I believe one shouldn’t travel in such a hurried manner through such a
I see a group of friends in their twenties--happy, laughing--they appear
They’re probably all realizing that dream they had when they were kids,
that they would all one day backpack around Europe together.
Even though now they all have separate lives and ideas, they have
been loyal to their memories.
Suddenly another boat passes opposite this one.
A flash hits my eye and I turn my head away.
I look back at a handsome man with a camera cradled in his hands.
He can not seem to stop looking at me, nor I at him.
But we both have to go our separate ways.
There is Notre Dame Cathedral over the top of the trees!
As I approach, it seems such a gothic somber-looking over-shadowing
I stare at it and it gives me this eerie feeling.
As I enter slowly I see older women with their shawls draped over their
Each of them lights a candle.
The candles flaming all around hypnotize me.
The women also leave flowers--some blood red, some grass green--at
the foot of the statues of the saints.
They pray for the souls of their loved ones, who are not in this world any
more, and for their own souls.
I walk outside and the pigeons all surround me.
They appear to be floating above me.
Kiosks and flower stalls are everywhere!
I go to one and buy a little bit of birdseed.
As I open the bag, the seeds splatter on the cobblestones.
Suddenly the pigeons all swoop down towards me.
They appear like fighter planes that have found their target.
My hair blows with the wind and I walk away smiling and leave
them to eat
I suddenly realize I have been walking non-stop.
I’m so thirsty!
There must be a cafe around here somewhere.
Ah yes! There’s one!
It's an intimate little place and I go sit in a corner.
A waitress comes and I order a café crème.
As I look around I spot a man opening a little black box towards
the beaming face of a young woman.
She takes out what's inside.
It's a ring!
I can not hear what they say, but it is obvious.
I read his lips. He asks her to marry him.
She says, "Oui," and wraps her arms around him.
They keep talking, promising eternal love to each other and
wondering where they would be if they hadn't accidentally met
at this very cafe a few years earlier.
I leave a tip of a few francs and head towards the ever popular
I flag a taxi and tell him my destination.
And he speeds towards it
I love the thrill of flying through the streets.
We pass by the Arc de Triumph, and I decide to stop there.
I walk on under the Arc and then towards to the Eiffel Tower,
dodging cars along the way.
When I arrive I walk up the long steps and look around.
There is no one in sight.
I lean over the bar on the observation deck and I stare up at the star
I feel so tranquil here!
Yet I have to leave.
I look turn my eyes downward towards the city.
The carnival is still twirling and whirling
The cathedral remains solid still.
I have seen so much today.
I’ve seen young love blossom, the love of parents for their
children and the love of older people for their memories.
Suddenly I hear someone calling me.
From far away it seems!
I wake up and look around the familiar classroom, and I see
my teachers face looking down at me.
She tells me there is still time to finish my test.
I look at the test and I see all the answers clearly now, clearly
and without frustration.
One day I will return to Paris.
And not by dream.
© Valarie Giraldez 2001
THE AMERICAN SPIRIT
This heartfelt poem by a student at our school on the tragedy of September 11th, 2001 was recently published in The Anthology of Young American Poets and deserves to be shared here.
THE AMERICAN SPIRIT
By Claudia Thomas
A distant act of infamy
infiltrating the great land of the free,
flying on wings of death,
demolishing a symbol of hope and great security.
A callous disregard for the welfare of others.
America’s heart has been wounded, but not for long.
Here we stand fearless, as we sing our song.
Candlelight, shine your light
For those who dare not go quietly into the night,
who gave their lives for their abiding devotion.
United we stand, an unbreakable wall of freedom,
spreading the wings of hope from every mountain,
to the prairies, across the oceans, that we the united
will not go quietly into the night.
The faceless angels, in their battle
against the evil clutches of death,
charging up the steps towards uncertainty,
not knowing if it’ll be their last.
“America, America, we share our tears with you,
our thoughts and prayers will help us get through
this attack against the red, white and blue.
A piece of our hearts was lost in that rubble,
along with our sons, our daughters,
our mothers, our fathers.
It seems like a dream, like a movie scene.
No matter how hard we try we cannot say,
“stop rewind,” just to hear the laugh we love,
the sad face, that makes us cry,
the smile that makes us weak.
© Claudia Thomas 2003
This poignant story captures the essence of the immigrant experience, exploring questions of identity and place. And it's also a story about growing up.
by Pavle Slankamenac
It was Saturday night and the rain had been pounding the whole day. Petar Pavlovich and his family were standing in front of the blue bus that was going to the local airport. All his relatives, friends from class, neighbors and people he at least expected to show up were gathered together to give him a hug and to say good bye. “The sky is crying with us today,” Petar’s cousin Danilo lamented, and just then the deep sound of the horn interrupted their small gathering.
Petar and his family got on the bus, loaded with people whose faces were full of sadness. As the bus slowly accelerated, Petar waved for the last time to the crowd. Their cloths were all wet. He could see the whole sky in their faces, but in the same time he could feel the joy of their hearts for his new beginning. Petar could not distinguish the difference between their tears and raindrops. The only sound that he could hear was the pounding of the rain, like the last heartbeats of the man fighting for his life. The bus was passing his old school, standing there dark and gloomy. He was trying to see the window of his old classroom, and when he found it memories cascaded. Sixteen years Petar had spent in his native country, a place where people could easily pronounce his name, where he said his first word, made his first step, got his first grade, and fell from his bike for the first time.
More than two years had passed since Petar had been in his native country. He could still remember the earthly smell of the summer rain mixed with dust and the caring faces of all his cousins, but had started a new life on another continent, a life where he had to fight in order to succeed. Petar had came to the country of survival of the fittest; he had to overcome the struggle with the language and to be a role model to his friends and family back home. Even though he went to school and stayed up very late on his night job, time passed as if it was only one week. Now Petar was preparing to go back to see all those dear faces again.
During the plane ride Petar unearthed his memory slowly, piece by piece like an experienced archeologist decoding hieroglyphs: burek, Kalemegdan, flat tire at Marko’s house on Sunday morning, Okapine, salty smell of the Adriatic at Baošiæi, fishing at dusk on Sava, beef sandwiches with lots of pavlaka at Mara, cold paving stone in Skadarlija street, “Hristos se rodi.”
The high pitch of wheels touching the surface of the runway woke him as the plane landed in a small airport in Belgrade. Petar recognized the big smile of his delighted cousin in the crowd. When they met each other, they did not know what to say at first. They had so much to talk about. One big hug was enough. Then he took Petar’s three big suitcases and tried to put them in the car that was only a little bigger than the luggage. Exhausted from the long traveling, he looked through the open window to see what had been changed. There were the same old buildings, grey facades, the same content expression of people’s faces, the same fresh air carried from the Danube, but now he was looking of them from different perspective, from the comforts of big cars, the view of tall buildings, and the warmth of bungalows. The stream of his thoughts was suddenly interrupted by the view of his grandma’s house. They were home. His “nana” greeted him with tears in her eyes, like the prodigal son in the parable from the Bible. She could not believe that Petar had come home; neither could he. She welcomed him with a sweet smell of warm meats, homemade soup, and chocolate cake.
After many hours talking, sharing experiences, describing his ordinary life in the US, Petar became tired and he decided to go take a nap. The hot summer sun had no mercy, and it was too hot to sleep. He complained about the fact they did not have air conditioner, and then he remembered his new home and all the comforts he enjoyed.
In the evening Petar tried to use Internet, but he could not connect to it. He annoyingly asked his cousin: “What is this, do I have to wait my whole life to be connected on the net?” His cousin Danilo gave him a strange look: “My brother, you really become an American, you learned to have everything served immediately.”
That night Petar was laying in the bed looking at the ceiling. He got up and walked to the window. His old school was standing alone, same as that night he left. His school seemed to be waiting for him in some other place, some other continent.