September 19 falls on a Tuesday this year. Tuesday is the day I post each installment of this blog, and . . .
September 19, of course, is . . .
International Talk Like a Pirate Day!
So cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of mayhem.
International Talk Like a Pirate Day may be abbreviated to just Talk Like a Pirate Day, making it more wieldy in the mouth.
Since 1995, it is a day when those starved for amusement interject “Aaarrr!” into every other sentence. Lest that become boring, the day’s inventors, John Baur and Mark Summers, have provided a complete lexicon of pirate phrases. Conveniently, they all begin with the letter a—as in “ahoy,” “avast,” and so on. No sense wearing yourself out on the rest of the alphabet.
In this euphoric pursuit, one can’t help wondering where the very concept of talking like a pirate came from, can one?
Piracy, after all, is a crime. Its practitioners are known criminals. One might expect them to be unsavory characters, but—how, precisely, would they talk?
What about Long John Silver, the most famous pirate of all? He’s an invention of nineteenth-century writer Robert Louis Stevenson. Long John is the prime villain of Stevenson’s adventure novel Treasure Island. Before he reveals his villainy, however, he talks like this:
See here, now, Hawkins, here’s a blessed hard thing on a man like me, now, ain’it? There’s Cap’n Trelawney—what’s he to think? Here I have this confounded son of a Dutchman sitting in my own house drinking of my own rum! Here you comes and tells me of it plain; and here I let him give us all the slip before my blessed deadlights!
Now, that’s more like it—a bit rough around the edges. Still, it’s hardly the slavering, bloodthirsty banter we might have expected from Long John Silver. For that, we must go to the man who became Long John Silver—actor Robert Newton.
Newton (1905-1956) first appeared as Silver in Walt Disney’s British-made film adaptation of Treasure Island in 1950. Two years later he played Edward Teach in Blackbeard the Pirate. He reprised the Treasure Island character in a 1954 Australian-made film, Long John Silver, and in a 26-episode TV series, The Adventures of Long John Silver, in 1955.
By March 1956, the hard-drinking fifty-year-old actor was dead. He left behind a varied and impressive catalog of important film roles. But he will always be remembered as the complete owner of Long John Silver. Today, almost seventy years after his death, it is Newton’s voice—an exaggerated version of the West Country accent of his youth—that today’s pirate talkers mimic.
And a typical Hollywood thing happened: Long John Silver went from fearsome villain to endearing rogue. He became the protector of, not so much a threat to, young Jim Hawkins. That’s how it had to be for a half-hour television series to be watched by the young people of the English-speaking world.
So powerful was Newton’s characterization that Long John migrated to center stage and become the hero of the piece. Thus he became not only the locus classicus of offically approved pirate speech but also the very embodiment of The Lovable Pirate.
Lovable, tender-hearted, heroic, or repentant buccaneers were nothing new. The nineteenth century gave us romanticized pirates in Walter Scott’s The Pirate, James Fenimore Cooper’s The Red Rover, and Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance.
But Robert Newton stamped the worn-out stereotype with a twentieth century gloss, bringing it to life on screen with his memorable portrayals of Long John Silver and Blackbeard.
Former English poet laureate John Masefield, a lover of the sea, let slip something nearer the sad truth of piracy in his curiously schizophrenic poem, A Ballad of John Silver, to wit:
. . . Then the dead men fouled the scuppers and the wounded filled the chains, And the paint-work all was spatter-dashed with other people's brains, She was boarded, she was looted, she was scuttled till she sank, And the pale survivors left us by the medium of the plank.
O! then it was (while standing by the taffrail on the poop) We could hear the drowning folk lament the absent chicken-coop; Then, having washed the blood away, we'd little else to do Than to dance a quiet hornpipe as the old salts taught us to. . . .
I’ve long admired the cheeks and jowls of ancient Romans.
Clean-shaven, those mugs: Marcus Tullius Cicero, Julius Caesar and the rest as they appear in sculptured busts.
It’s easy to have a smooth chin when you’re sculpted in marble or alabaster. It’s something else again when you have a biological face with little hairs that keep growing out of it.
But if those busts are true to life, how did the ancients manage it? They must have had sharp Iron Age razors. Or did they use Iron Age tweezers to pluck the hairs out, one by one?
Ouch. Too much information. I don’t know and I don’t care.
I come to bury Caesar and praise King Gillette.
Some people’s names seem to determine their lives. Martin Luther King was bound to be a clergyman of some kind. The same goes for the late Methodist bishop John Wesley Lord.
So King Gillette was destined to become some kind of royalty. Shaving royalty, as it turns out.
Through most of the 19th century, shaving was a challenge.
You had to use a wicked sharp razor. Straight razors took such a keen edge they often doubled as personal protective devices for folks who trod dark alleys at night. Like a good jackknife, their blades folded neatly into a handle of wood, bone, ivory, steel, or mother-of-pearl.
You had to lather your face. That was the easy part. Any soap would do, although special shaving soaps were sold. They were cylindrical so they could fit into a mug. You would grip the mug by its handle, wet the soap with hot water, work up a lather using a badger-hair brush, and use that brush to spread the lather across your face.
Then, gripping the razor in the fingers of one hand, you drew the blade across your cheeks, chin, and throat, slicing off the stubble while trying to miss the larger arteries and veins. Men often delegated this hazardous job to professional barbers.
If you had the daring to shave yourself, a single outing dulled the edge of the razor. You had to re-hone it before your next shave. You honed it on the grainy side of a leather strap. Special straps made for this purpose were called “strops” to distinguish them from other straps.
The strop served a double purpose. It could be used on your wayward children. Wayward boys knew the strop was waiting for them at home should their adventures get too adventurous.
You had to keep this old hunk of leather around, you had to know how to whet your razor with it, and you had to wield the razor in such a way as to mow down whiskers but leave the nose, ears, and Adam’s apple standing proudly.
Men were made of stern stuff. They had to be.
King Gillette, who worked selling cork seals for bottle caps, was inspired by the fact that cap and seal were tossed in the trash after the bottle was opened. Here was an object manufactured with precision yet cheap enough to discard after one use.
Could you do that with razor blades?
Others had invented safety razors, which had the blade shielded to prevent serious cuts. But these razors still used expensive forged blades that had to be re-sharpened by a professional cutler. Gillette and machinist William Emery Nickerson figured out how to make sharp razor blades cheaply, from thin stamped steel. Just insert a blade into the safety razor, shave your face, and discard the blade.
The razor itself—the handle which held the blade—Gillette sold for five dollars in 1903, equivalent to about $170 of today’s money. That’s a lot of money to pay for a razor, but cheap, disposable blades were a big improvement.
Gillette sold 51 razors and 168 blades in 1903. The next year he sold 90,884 razors and 123,648 blades. It took a while for the new mode of shaving to catch on, but Wikipedia says that by 1915, “Razor sales reached 450,000 units and blade sales exceeded 70 million units.”
With millions of men using safety razors and disposable blades, not all were Gillette products. Competitors included Ever-ready, Gem, and Schick. The Gillette Company could not afford to let its brand languish.
Thus, no Friday from 1946 through 1960 was complete without the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports—more commonly known as The Friday Night Fights—on NBC Radio (and, later, TV).
At commercial breaks we heard from a male quartet and a singing parrot, treating us to the Gillette theme song—
Be sharp and listen, Mister—
How are you fixed for blades?
Do you have plenty?
How are you fixed for blades?
You’d better check!
Please make sure you have enough,
’Cause worn-out blades
Make shaving mighty tough.
How are you fixed for blades?
You’d better look—
Gillette Blue Blades, we mean!
Prize fights were a sport on a par with baseball, football, basketball, or horse racing. The Gillette Cavalcade of Sportscovered all these events and more, but mostly: boxing. Your New Favorite Author heard Ezzard Charles defeat Joe Louis for the heavyweight championship. Charles, in turn, was dethroned by Jersey Joe Walcott, and he by Rocky Marciano.
This carnage could all be heard on Friday night, provided your radio was turned on, courtesy of Gillette’s new, improved Blue Blades. You could get two or three shaves from one blade, then it was time to change. But a new blade was only a nickel.
You no longer had to use a mug and a badger-hair brush. Space-age technology brought you shaving soap in an aerosol can, branded as Rise, Rapid Shave, Gillette Foamy, or Barbasol. Burma-Shave, famous for its rhyming roadside signs, was originally a product sold in tubes and tubs. For a brief period it came in aerosol form as well.
These canned shaves offered a stiff lather but had a major drawback: You applied them by hand, getting your fingers all soapy. You then had to dry, or at least wipe, your fingers so you could hold the razor.
By contrast, my badger-hair brush—still in use today—applies hot lather to my face but not to my hands. At least, that’s the theory. In reality, I get soapy fingers with my method, too. I just happen to like it better.
Toward the end of the canned lather era, somebody developed an aerosol that actually heats the foam to give you a hot shave. But it still gets all over your fingers.
Those who shave with an electric shaver have no such problems, but they’re missing all the fun.
Meanwhile, we who shave the old way have conquered one final technological hurdle: the blade.
In 1962 the British company Wilkinson Sword began selling stainless steel razor blades. Other companies were forced to compete by issuing their own stainless blades. You can shave a month with a stainless blade, not just a day or two as with the previous carbon steel blades.
It was chased down to its logical conclusion when companies simply started encasing their month-long blades in disposable plastic razor handles. This eliminated the need to change blades. Now, you just throw the whole thing away.
The price of a plastic razor with embedded blade is about a dollar. Sixty years ago you had a forever steel razor and used, say, twenty blades a month at a nickel a blade—about a dollar’s worth of blades each month.
But that 1963 dollar was equivalent to about ten dollars today. In 2023 we pay a devalued dollar for a month’s worth of shaves. The real price of shaving has gone down by ninety percent.
It’s pretty inexpensive these days to sport the face of a Roman senator.
Dear Reader—You’ll know from last week’s post that wonderful things can happen when you’re a Literary Lion.
One example is that I discovered Steve Fox’s debut short story collection, Sometimes Creek. I heartily recommend it. You may just be captivated by Steve’s unique slant on stories that in other circumstances—for example, if I had written them—would be ordinary.
The stories in this book are far from ordinary. Here’s my review:
by Steve Fox
It’s real life as lived in the Upper Midwest on those days when the air is numinous and reality must be seen on a slant to be viewed at all.
The seventeen stories in Steve Fox’s collection Sometimes Creek are regional, populated by folks you know from down the block. They are also universal tales where things happen, in the plot but most of all inside the characters, that stand your expectations on end and make you think about the human condition.
In “The Butcher’s Ghost,” a man and woman slip, separately, into a clifftop bistro with a haunted past—each taking refuge from world-woundedness. The two lonely souls seem like ships passing in the night, but you realize gradually that something more is going on.
The title story, “Sometimes Creek,” gives us a father and daughter in the grip of overpowering grief, who must relocate their household into a neighborhood crazed with its annual Halloween rituals. The neighbors welcome their healing hearts with a mix of help and hindrance, which may or may not make things come round right in the end.
Each of the stories in this collection is multi-layered, dense with nuance and surprise. They are stories that will repay a second or even a third reading. You notice something new each time around.
If you’ve been captured by such masters as Jack Finney and Stephen King, these stories may transport you to similar territory. Two thumbs up, but only because that’s all the thumbs I’ve got.
Another part of the world has been heard from regarding Peco Yeh’s extant paintings.
Peco Yeh is a Chinese artist who plied his wares in Taipei in the latter half of the last century. Your New Favorite Writer had the opportunity to meet him, and I bought a painting from him for a scandalously low price. I have written about that painting, a waterscape, and the experience of acquiring and owning it, in this very blog, here and here.
In the latter post I also mentioned Earline Dirks, who emailed me that she owns a Peco Yeh painting—an interesting study of two figures, one a young boy, examining a lantern.
Now another collector steps forth. Joshua Lowe of Beckley, West Virginia (“Right in the middle of the Appalachian coal fields”) wrote me as follows:
“It was 2012 maybe 2013, a friend of mines uncle had passed and his house was scheduled for demolition. I was asked if I would come to the property with my metal detectors, he wanted to scan the property before the dozers arrived. We scanned found some coins nothing notable. The home was dilapidated and the family had split and taken all the possessions that they where fond of or deemed valuable. I was asked if I would like to “tour the home” and was told anything I like just take it, because everything else would be left in the home during demolition and hauled off. We went room to room thru the home nothing notable or out of the ordinary for an abandoned home. There where dishes and faux silverware scattered thru the kitchen, magazines and stacks of readers digests lay scattered in most of the living areas!
“We came into the den and a stack pictured laid against the wall, most where nothing more than everyday prints that you would find in any cut rate motel, Home interior or pier 21. As I went thru the stack of pictures, it was there. It jumped out ! It was something did not belong in this stack! I had no idea who Peco Yeh was! But, that did not matter, I knew this one was painted and framed by hand, I knew this one had some age and it grasped my attention and knew that it did not belong in the trash! I took the painting with me that day. I still appreciate and admire it as much now as I did then! I was told that the original owner was military and was stationed in Southeast Asia many years ago. Thru the little research I have done I have no doubts that this was bought during his tours in Southeast Asia maybe even from Peco Yeh himself.”
Here is a photo Joshua Lowe took of his Peco Yeh painting:
On the face of it, it’s a simple urban scene, a narrow street or alley vanishing into the distance in a classic perspective drawing exercise. Right at the convergence point is a small white-clothed figure—male or female, impossible to tell. In my view, it’s that human figure alone who gives this scene a spark of interest. Unlike the boatman in my painting, who is clearly a boatman: or the young boy in Earline’s painting, who is clearly a young boy: this person is a mere sliver in the distance—enigmatic, mysterious. The alley is ordinary, but the person—is he, or she, coming or going? Is he, or she, carrying something on his or her head? The legs, vague and spindly though they are, convey a feeling of motion, dynamism in a static setting. Wouldn’t you like to know who it was that Peco had in mind? I sure would.
I have no reason to think Peco was a great artist. Yet here are three paintings—mine, Earline’s, and Joshua’s—that lead the eye to explore a bit beyond the deceptively simple surface of things. For that, I thank him.
I never aspired to be Longfellow. Or Ralph Waldo Emerson. Or Marilynne Robinson.
I just wanted to write something.
And to have it read by somebody.
Who would be moved by it.
To achieve these aims, I found it necessary to become a Literary Lion first.
After years of storm and struggle, I retired in 2009 and found the perfect part-time job to entertain me in retirement.
I was the husband of a good and loving wife, the father of an outstanding daughter, and the grandfather of two sparkling cherubim.
Our house was paid for and had a large backyard with plenty of shade in which one could lollygag to one’s heart’s content.
And my heart, Dear Reader, was content.
At age 70, I was a success.
Only: I had not yet written the Great American Novel.
Back in 1953, I wrote a story—a private-eye saga on two sheets of lined paper in my Big Chief pencil tablet.
I wrote it at my third-grade desk, when I was supposed to be doing something else. But I had already finished doing that other thing, whatever it was, and some of my classmates were still toiling away.
In those days, most teachers did not go out of their way to encourage creativity. But dear old Mrs. Winders, as she walked the aisle looking over her pupils’ shoulders, chose to look elsewhere as she walked by me. So I finished my detective story.
It had a beginning, a middle, and an end, just as Aristotle recommends. There may even have been a reversal of fortune or two. It was pretty good but, alas, has been lost to posterity.
I always meant to follow it up with more stories—and books, lots of books. But stray fortunes led me down a different path. You know how it is. (If you don’t, check with Robert Frost.)
So here I was, at threescore and ten, not yet the author of a major work of fiction.
You know how, when you get an itch, you need to scratch it?
At the end of 2015 I retired from my retirement job with a respectable church magazine to become a full-time fabulist. Editing The Congregationalist was the best job I ever had. I enjoyed it well and could have kept doing it for a long time. But sometimes you have to choose one thing or another.
Satchel Paige advised, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” I reckon he was right. Look what happened to Lot’s wife.
I wanted to write fiction. I did not know what fiction to write, but I figured it would come to me.
And so it did.
I wrote a few stories about a 1950s boy named Izzy Mahler. I submitted them to the Saturday Evening Post and they published two of them on their website. They honorably mentioned another in their Great American Fiction Contest and published it in the 2018 contest anthology.
Chalk it up to beginner’s luck.
As I groped for a topic or theme for a novel, my wife brought forth genealogy on Anders Gunstensen, my great-great-grandfather, who emigrated from Norway in 1853. Based on her research about Anders and his wife, Johanne-Marie Elizabeth Nybro, a fictitious story flashed into my mind—one that could be wedged into the wide spaces between the few known facts.
So in 2017 I started to write a historical novel in which the main characters, Anders and Maria, move from Norway to America and become involved in a black slave’s escape from slavery.
I had attended the University of Wisconsin-Extension’s 2016 “Write By the Lake” conference. There, the great Laurie Scheer had led me to believe that I could actually write such a book and that somebody might read that book.
So on I wrote.
Meanwhile, I joined a local writers’ group, Tuesdays With Story, a twice-monthly gathering for mutual critique, moderated by the great Jerry Peterson. I submitted raw chapters of my novel for comments by fellow writers. My mind stubbornly resisted many well-meant suggestions from these colleagues. Eventually—when my original approach left me stuck with nowhere to go—I came to understand what my Tuesday night friends were telling me about narrative structure. Aided by these generous critics, I trudged up the Fiction Writers’ Learning Curve, which turns out to be a lot steeper once you are climbing it than it looked from the bottom.
I attended the 2018 UW-Extension Writers’ Institute and suddenly realized the writers gathered there had become my tribe. Though they wrote different kinds of stories and took much different approaches, they shared my affliction. Many of them were presenting more advanced symptoms.
I was the new kid on the block, yet welcomed freely into their midst.
They warned me it is hard to get a book published and hard to sell copies of it once published. You need a “platform.” Now, if you happen to write nonfiction and are already a known expert in your field—perhaps you make lots of speeches and presentations around the country—then you already have a platform.
If you’re a mere fabulist—a writer of fiction—then you need to build a platform from scratch. It takes connections, relationships, and social media. Don’t wait till your book is published to get started.
One of the best things to pre-sell my writing was to write a blog, they claimed. That sounded like a great deal of work. I would have to rent space on the Internet and post new writings regularly. What could I think of to write a blog about? And, thus occupied, when would I find time to do my real writing?
It preyed on my conscious thoughts. My Tuesday night mentor Jerry Peterson said, “Well, you might try writing a blog just for its own sake. Don’t think of blog posts as just a way to promote your writing. They might actually be your writing—or at least, part of it.”
I launched a blog in April 2019. I called it “Reflections” and defined its focus as “seeking fresh meanings in our common past.”
You see, I had figured out by then that all my writing is about plumbing the depths of the past. My genre preference of historical fiction might have been a clue.
I soon found that, keeping that focus in mind, I do find topics to blog about, week after week. It can take a whole day or more out of my writing week to do the blog. But I enjoy it, and people read it.
Thus far I’ve blogged for more than four years, for a total of perhaps a quarter of a million words.
Jerry was right. Blogging is writing. It stands on its own.
This post—a particularly long one—is titled, “Confessions of a Literary Lion.”
Pause a moment to reflect, Fair Reader.
I set out, in January 2016, to become a writer of fiction. In pursuit of that dream, I found I had to do several things:
I had to write fiction. Not sporadically, but with regularity and dedication.
I had to attend conferences and classes to learn how to write fiction.
I had to join a writing group and learn how to use astute critiques to improve my work.
I had to spend quite a bit of time reading other people’s work and crafting astute comments to help them improve their work.
I had to plunge into social media to build a platform.
I had to write a blog—yes, to boost my visibility (platform), but also simply to spread my writings abroad. To reach people who might never read my historical fiction.
Oh, and besides all that: To learn the art of fiction, to learn the trade of marketing, and to better grasp that past which I am so eager to share with those who inhabit the present—I had to read a great many books. Books of well-written fiction. Books of poorly written fiction (learning what not to do!). Books on how to write. Books on how to get published. Books on how to sell books. Books of history and biography, surveying the terrain of the past. Books that zero in on specific past events and settings that relate to the story I’m writing. And by the way, books read for the sheer joy of reading, which I have always done.
I have become one of the leading customers of the glorious South Central Wisconsin Library System. I’ve become a patron in good standing of Amazon and local independent bookstores.
All the pursuits mentioned above, in the aggregate, are so sedentary that I find I need a determined effort to get regular exercise. Yet I wouldn’t trade this life for anything.
However, one must face the fact: I’ve become a Literary Lion.
I considered it a public service to writers. If you know you must become a Literary Lion even before you have any tangible sign of literary success, it puts things in perspective.
The main thing it puts in perspective is that, if you’re serious about writing, you give it your all.
You will soon be neck-deep in drafts, revisions, critiques, reviews, conferences, events, relationships, and books. You may as well buy an ascot, a smoking jacket, and a briar pipe, because you’ve become Mister Writer (soon to be Mister Author)—or Miz, as the case may be.
At any rate, you may stop asking people, “How do I know if I’m really a writer?”
Just suck it up and get on with it.
When this Buddha-like moment of Enlightenment came to me, it was on the whole a good thing, because it prepared me to dig in and take the next major challenges in stride.
You see, while undergoing a Gregor Samsa-like metamorphosis into something both fascinating and repellent (note the high-class literary allusion there, Gentle Reader?), I had been diligently pecking away at the Great American Novel.
I finished the first draft—“finished” in the sense of typing “The End” at the bottom—in late summer of 2019. After a period of extensive and exhaustive revision, I felt it was ready, under the title Freedom’s Purchase. So early in 2020 I began querying agents and publishers to see if they would read it and publish it.
Here’s how the publishing business works: You don’t just send somebody the whole manuscript of a book. That’s asking them to commit hours or days of their time to reading something they never heard of before. All agents and publishers receive hundreds or thousands of queries a year.
So the procedure is to send a brief query letter giving just a brief description of the book’s contents and your own qualifications as a writer. Some agents and publishers want a one-page plot synopsis in additon. Some want an author’s biography or resumé. Some want to see the first ten pages, or the first three chapters, of the text. You send them exactly what they ask for, and then you hope they will ask to see the whole manuscript.
Mostly, they don’t. On those rare occasions when they do, it’s cause for rejoicing.
But be prepared to receive a rejection.
Among the rejections I received for Freedom’s Purchase were two that included a sentence or two of explanation why they passed on the opportunity to publish my book. One said the story “just didn’t feel big enough” to succeed in today’s very competitive book market.
The other said, “I’m afraid I’m going to take a pass on this one. The plot as described in the query had not begun to develop in the first 50 pages, and I frankly lost interest in the story at that point. You might want to consider rearranging some of your chapters, assuming the escaped slave story did eventually materialize, and have it interspersed with the character/scene development that was all at the beginning.”
When you have been in labor for years to give birth to an 80,000-word manuscript based on a furtive gleam in your mind’s eye, it can be hard—I mean, disappointing—to read such words.
However, they can be very much worth reading, because it can be just what you need to know.
A light bulb went on in my head.
All I had to do to make the story publishable was take it apart completely, throw out most of the best passages, reinvent the entire structure of the plot, make a minor character into a major character, ignore previously-received advice about the need for a unitary protagonist, invent oodles of new plot developments, and rewrite the whole thing from the ground up.
That’s all that was needed. And, Gracious Reader, you must understand—on account of the two informative rejections, I could see how to do it, except for all the details I would have to make up as I went along.
It would be the work of a year or more. It was disheartening. I felt defeated.
But I was now a Literary Lion. The Lionhood membership card came to my rescue. Becausethis latest twist in the saga of my novel begged to be blogged. I wrote,
My two helpful rejectors had made me realize something: I had gotten so good at query letters and plot summaries that when professionals read my book, the manuscript did not fulfill the promise of the synopsis. . . .
I would love to believe that I wrote a terrific novel that these dolts simply aren’t discerning enough to appreciate. But I would be a fool to stand on my greatness and fail to hear what these astute individuals are telling me.
What was I to do? Upon reading my blog post, the great Christine DeSmet, book coach par excellence, sent me an email. I did not save her exact words, but they were to this effect: “You can do this, Larry. Don’t give up.”
Being a Literary Lion, I confess, has its burdens; but there are great benefits as well. One of them is the opportunity to receive precious encouragement just when you need it.
I did not give up. I spent the year that it took to completely remake Freedom’s Purchase. Christine not only encouraged me, she helped me with many valuable insights about story, plot, and narrative methods. When I was done, I had a book that was at least 500 percent better than before, and a new title: The Maelstrom.
The first people I queried were the two publishers who had given me the informative rejections. I explained that although I sent them something before, the Maelstrom was a whole new book, and wouldn’t they like to read it?
One of them declined. The other, Daniel Willis of DX Varos Publishing, a traditional small press publisher in Denver, Colorado, said: “Send it.”
Dano read it, he bought it, he published it August 23, 2022. A year ago tomorrow. With a new title: Price of Passage.
We had a wonderful launch party for the book at Mystery to Me bookstore in Madison. Lots of hoopla among my friends and confidants.
The next day, I was once again just a struggling writer. Yes, a published author, with a book to sell. But the state of publishing today is that the author must do almost all the selling. While working on other literary output. And balance it all.
I already had another book—a middle-grade historical novel about my old short-story hero Izzy Mahler. Children’s books are not in Dano’s wheelhouse, so he declined the opportunity to look at it. I’m still trying to find an agent or editor who is interested.
Meanwhile, I’m working on another book. A World War II novel. That’s all I’ll say, because it’s not very far along.
So here are some things that have been added to my Literary Lion duties:
Book fairs. On certain weekends, I pack up a box or two of Price of Passage copies and go someplace to pitch my sales canopy and hawk my book, one copy at a time, to interested readers. I sold seventeen copies last weekend to people in Middleton. New Glarus, Waunakee, and Verona are coming up.
Bookstore visits. Sometimes I just pop into a local independent bookstore and pitch Price of Passage to the owner or manager. They don’t always agree to stock it, but sometimes they do, and I’ve sold some copies that way.
Speeches. I’ve appeared at the Sun Prairie Public Library and a Norwegian-themed women’s book club called Gudrid Circle. I’m scheduled to speak September 30 in Stevens Point at the Central Wisconsin Book Festival. These speeches are also opportunities to sell books.
I’m still a member of a writers’ mutual-critique group—two of them, actually, one meeting monthly and the other biweekly. By default, I have become the convener/moderator for both of them. I guess because I’m a Literary Lion.
Recently, I added Substack.com as a venue where my blog appears, in addition to my own site at LarryFSommers.com. It’s an experiment. I don’t know if I’ll gain readers or not, but at least people who read my posts on Substack will have an easy way to sponsor my writing with a cash donation. We’ll see what happens.
I’m considering finally reading The Iliad and The Odyssey. In translation, of course. I need to understand heroes better.
There’s always something new and different in the life of a Literary Lion.
I’m pretty sure this is not how Shakespeare did it. Or Walt Whitman. Or Agatha Christie.
There is no responsible alternative; they really don’t know better.
I believed, as a callow U.S. airman in 1967, that haggling was de rigueur in Asian cultures. To get the best price was the name of the game, and no holds were barred. It was normal and expected.
So when a soft little man stepped out on the sidewalk in Taipei and asked what I thought of the monochrome painting I was gazing at, I replied with sappy disdain. “I suppose it’s all right, if you like that sort of thing.”
It was a moody waterscape with a Chinese boatman sculling his craft between a larger boat and some timbers jutting from the river. A gray hill or mountain hovers vaguely in the background. One can feel a wisp of fog and hear the slip of water streaming along the strakes.
This painting stood among flat Taiwan street scenes bristling with shop signs and telephone wires.
“Is the boat picture by the same artist who did these others?” I asked.
The little man hooked a thumb toward his puffy chest. “Me. I did them all.”
“Really? Because this one looks nothing like those.”
His eyes gleamed, black agates behind their epicanthic folds. “I paint many different styles. Peco Yeh.” He shook my hand and gave me a card.
We haggled a bit, and I walked away with the painting, framed, for about three American dollars—equivalent to maybe forty bucks today. The work was worth far more, by any rational scale.
I gave the painting to my parents. It hung in their living room for decades. Later, it came back to me and now graces my wall.
Peco Yeh, it turns out, was a painter of some note. An apocryphal biography from an unknown source on the Web puts an exotic gloss on his life:
“Peco Yeh is/was a Chinese man living in Taipei Taiwan during the 1970s. He came from Chengdu, China with the nationalists in 1947 with his mother. His mother was the mistress of the last court artist of the Qing Dynasty. When Empress Dowager Cixi was poisoned, the court artist went to Chengdu and took the mistress.”
Whether any of that is true, who can say?
I do know that for three dollars more than half a century ago I acquired a painting by a true artist. My only excuse is that I was young. I didn’t know the difference between a hodgepodge of paint on canvas and a work of art.
The boatman painting has grown on me over the years. My own taste has developed, of course, but more to the point: Peco Yeh’s work stands the test of time.
There are others of his paintings out there in the world. You can find a few for sale on the Web at prices in the four-hundred-dollar range. If you look at them, you can see for yourself that what the artist told me is true: He did paint in different styles.
A few weeks ago came an email from a woman named Earline Dirks who buys and sells old paintings. She is in possession of a Peco Yeh canvas, much different from mine. She wrote me because she happened across my blog post of 28 May 2019, which mentions the boatman painting.
The work Earline acquired shows two people, a young boy and an older person—perhaps a mother, grandmother, or servant—holding a Chinese lantern. The older person is kneeling, her face somewhat obscured. The boy’s face is clear, gazing intently into the lantern’s light.
Are we seeing a young Peco? Is this a memory of his own childhood?
Earline was kind enough to share the image with me, so I share it with you.
Recently I mentioned my correspondence with Mac McMorrow about Pan Am’s Anzac Clipper, which my Uncle Ed flew into Hilo harbor on December 7, 1941—where they encountered, in an official capacity, Mac’s father, the chief public health officer on the Big Island in those days.
First Mac, now Earline.
Isn’t it wonderful the acquaintances one can make by blogging?
So this is what I do. Why am I suddenly doing it on Substack?
First and foremost, to expose my work to a wider spectrum of readers.
Secondly, to offer readers the opportunity to support my work with cash. You are not required to do this. You can read everything I post for free. But if you want to support and encourage my work, Substack offers a convenient way to do it.
Why do I mention this second point? The writing life is not remunerative. There are conferences to attend, websites to maintain, software to update, books to buy, manuscripts to print. Most book fairs and festivals charge a fee for a booth or table—a fee which may or may not be recouped by sales. My subscription to Publishers’ Marketplace, an essential tool for writers, costs $25 every month.
In the seven and a half years since becoming a full-time writer, I have spent $9,000 more on the project than I have earned in book sales and other income. I persist despite the dollar cost, because I have something to say, and I will not live forever.
For every James Patterson or Stephen King there are thousands of us who never receive enough for their writings to break even, let alone make money. Substack is offering a different paradigm, in which readers can support writers by paying them.
From my point of view, it’s worth a shot.
Whether you pay or not, I hope you’ll enjoy reading my posts. And if you do, tell others.
On December 7, 1941, Uncle Ed was enroute to Honolulu from San Francisco, flying as first officer on Pan Am’s Anzac Clipper. That Sunday morning, radio signals made it clear Pearl Harbor was under attack. Captain Harry Lanier Turner changed course and landed at Hilo, two hundred miles away.
My rambling January 2020 post told about Uncle Ed’s experience that day and in the days following. I also mentioned the near-simultaneous attacks on several Pan Am stations in the western Pacific.
The post drew several Facebook comments and one on-page comment at the time of its posting. Then three and a half years passed.
Suddenly, three weeks ago, a long comment was posted on the page by Mac McMorrow, a lifelong resident of Hawaii’s Big Island. In the late 1930s, dengue fever and bubonic plague were common in the Hawaiian islands. As a result, McMorrow’s father, the first graduate of MIT’s public health engineer program, was hired to suppress the disease-prone rat population near Hilo.
Though Mac McMorrow was a two-year-old toddler in 1941, Honoluolu Star-Advertiser columnist Bob Sigall reached out to him recently to comment on a note from one Alvin Yee. Yee had written:
“On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941 an unscheduled Pan Am Clipper flying boat [the Anzac Clipper my Uncle Ed copiloted] landed in Hilo Bay after eluding the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and [Mac McMorrow’s] father tried to go on board and inspect everyone for disease but some haughty State Department official wouldn’t allow it saying the passengers were VIPs.
“I happen to know the passengers included the young Shah of Iran and the Premier of Burma and their travelling parties on their way back to Asia. . . . Check with Mac to see if I got this story straight.”
McMorrow, in his reply to Sigall, stated: “I can’t confirm very much of his story based on what was passed down to me by my father. I doubt it was my father who was confronted by the State Department official. I think my father would have mentioned that kind of incident to me. My father was the senior Territorial Health Officer on Hawaii Island and he would have had the plane quarantined if the regulations were not followed.”
He then adds a tantalizing tale:
[W]hat I remember my father telling me was that a passenger on the plane was a US diplomat. He had to return to the mainland on the Clipper. However, accompanying him was an attractive Asian/Eurasian woman who was not an American citizen. She was not allowed to return on the flight. She was left in Hilo when the Clipper took off the next day. One of our handsome family friends quickly took her under his “protection”. He escorted her around Hilo for several days until she could get to Honolulu. You can imagine the gossip little Hilo would have enjoyed, even under martial law.
Gracious Reader, this is the first whisper of this attractive Asian/Eurasian woman to reach Your New Favorite Writer’s ears. Or eyes, actually. It’s downright titillating.
One can easily imagine a diplomat traveling sub rosa with an attractive woman to whom he was not officially attached—even in the innocent 1940s. In fact, if we were enjoying a novel or a screenplay, you could count on it. A living informant telling us he heard it as fact from his father certainly adds credibility.
As to Alvin Yee’s assertion that “the young Shah of Iran [Mohammed Reza Pahlavi] and the Premier of Burma” were passengers on the plane: That’s not far-fetched, since the Boeing 314 Clippers were the ultimate form of transportation at the time, a natural choice for the rich, famous, and powerful. But the only other place I have seen this specific claim was in a 2016 article by Korea Times writer Nam Sang-so. I have emailed Mr. Nam a couple of times to find out where he got his assertion, but thus far have received no response.
This leaves me wondering whether Alvin Yee’s information came from Nam Sang-so’s article or from some other source.
Robert Daley, in An American Saga: Juan Trippe and his Pan Am Empire, says, “The Clipper [was to] be refueled here at Hilo and flown back to San Francisco as soon as possible. Passengers were welcome to ride back [or else] they could stay here and make their own way to Honolulu or Mauir or wherever they were going.” He says all the passengers opted to stay in Hawaii but makes no claim that any of them were VIPs. He mentions no Iranian royalty, Burmese politicians, or mystery women. But a lack of evidence that they existed is not necessarily evidence they did not exist, if you see what I mean.
So for now these things must remain intriguing mysteries.
But I do thank Mac McMorrow, now evidently a very active 84-year-old, for adding to the mystery.
Even more, I thank him for honoring one of my posts by responding. You, too, Fair Reader, are welcome to add your comments to this or any other post on my “Reflections” blog. Or you may email me with comments. My address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Safe and happy travels to you all—whether by flying boat, magic carpet, or pickup truck.
I wrote a story called “Encounters With Monsters.” It was about interactions with human beings, from the viewpoint of a migratory Canada goose. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure that a goose on a golf course could see people as monsters.
The literary magazines are not beating down my door for the opportunity to print this story. Since many people will never see a story told by an animal as adult fare, I think I’ll change my pitch and sell it as the text of a picture book for young readers.
Meanwhile, I’ve started thinking I should write another one—definitely for adults—called “Encounters With Entities.”
Here is one such encounter:
Interpol on Speed Dial
A few years ago we went to Italy with our friends Bill and Marsha. We rented a car in Florence. My name was on the contract, but Bill did most of the driving, because—well, Bill likes to drive . . . even in Italy!
After a splendid week driving around Tuscany, we needed to return the car to the downtown agency where we had rented it. Now, Florence is an old, confusing, medieval city—as most downtowns in Italy are—and Florence is also a Rubik’s cube of one-way streets. If you rent a car in the center of town and manage to escape to the countryside, that does not guarantee you will ever solve the puzzle of getting back to the same place. The streets are all different, like the staircases at Hogwarts.
Bill turned into a street by a large hotel. It seemed to lead the right way but turned out to be a dead end. Bystanders waved at us sternly to turn around, which we did. As we exited that cul-de-sac, I spotted a sign in English: “PRIVATE ENTRANCE. HOTEL WATSAMATTAYOU GUESTS ONLY.”
Eventually, we reached the darkest heart of Florence, returned the car, and went on our way.
FIVE MONTHS LATER came a letter from the European Union. Inside the officious-looking envelope was a traffic ticket in the amount of €93.50, for “driving in unauthorised zone.” Ransacking my memory, I realized that by entering the dead-end street beside the hotel, we had committed not just a faux pas but an actual Eurocrime.
They must have had a camera snapping the plate of every car in that street. They must have had a computer programmed to match each plate with those of legitimate hotel guests. Their program must have had a subroutine that traced the plate to the rental agency and found my name and home address in Madison, Wisconsin, USA.
And here’s the kicker: When the jury of computers had weighed the evidence and found me guilty, my punishment was too important to come from Florence city hall or the local polizi or even carabinieri headquarters.
No. The computer forwarded our case to Geneva so some obscure office of the European Union, in all its majesty, could issue my ticket.
In those days the euro was worth a third more than the dollar. In the five months (did I mention FIVE MONTHS??) since we did the crime, the exchange rate had tanked further. So that €93.50 came to well over a hundred clams.
We shared the joy with Bill and Marsha, our unindicted co-conspirators. We were all tempted to shred the ticket and forget it. After all, the long arms of Jean-Claude von Shakedown couldn’t reach us on U.S. territory.
BUT . . . we might want to visit Europe in the future. Imagine being turned back at Amsterdam passport control because the One Great Eurocomputer choked on an unpaid trafic violation.
As William Shakespeare said, though in a slightly different context, “Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all, and thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.”
Bill and Marsha chipped in their half, we sent the required Euros to Geneva, and as a result we are still welcome in Europe.
Valued customers, no doubt.
Dear and Gracious Reader, if it can happen to us, it can happen to you. Maybe it already has.
Now picture, if you will, the same incident happening twenty years earlier—before Italy joined Europe and before computers gobbled up all continents.
Way back then, that same street might have already been blocked off to “unauthorised” traffic— for big hotels have ways to make their voices heard in heavily-touristed cities. But in those halcyon days, enforcement might have been on the honor system; or, more likely, it might have been entrusted to a red-faced little man in a comic opera uniform. He would have lunged into our misguided path, waving a white-gloved hand and blowing his whistle.
He would have approached the driver’s side and addressed us in rapid Florentine. Bill and I would have shrugged, held up our hands, and chanted “No parlo italiano!” The little man in cape and shako would have then repeated the same phrases at twice the volume. We would have shrugged, gestured, and chanted operatically. He would have made obscene hand signs, which we would not have understood because they were in Italian.
We would have ended the episode by driving away unscotched.
Just possibly, we might have been roused in our hotel at two a.m. by a carabinieri rifle squad. But even then (here comes my point, Reader, in case you have lost track) even then, there would have been a person—a brigadiere perhaps, or a maresciallo—whom we could have addressed. One might have pleaded or even begged. Maybe one could have paid a sort of fine on the spot—perhaps a thousand lire for each member of the squad. But there’s no way a few thousand lire would have added up to more than a sawbuck.
The expense incurred twenty years later, doing things à la européenne, came from the cost of all those computers and all that bureaucracy. If you think Italian bureaucrats are bad, multiply them by every signatory to the Schengen accords. Translations alone must cost a fortune.
But when a total robot citation arrives from a major world government, five months after the foul deed, without the shred of a claim that any human ever witnessed the crime, or cared—what are you gonna do?
You can’t fight city hall if there’s no city hall to fight.
And that’s only one example.
It’s Everywhere! It’s Everywhere!
Thesis: Life is now more a matter of interfacing with entities, and less a matter of dealing with people.
Sometimes I wish I were a musician. If I were a musician, I could write and perform something like this:
Mmm . . . I got those old Interacting-with-Entities Blues,
Oh, yeah, I just got to tell you this news—
There’s no reason not to tell you,
I got those Interacting-with-Entities Blues, oh, yeah . . .
You’ll have to imagine the tune on your own, Fair Reader. I can’t be expected to do everything.
Wisconsin, where I live, is known for inclement weather. Winter seems to last about six months here in Madison.
Then there is a brief spring, followed by three months of warm, GLORIOUS SUMMER, which tapers off in a wine-and-gold two-month autumn until snowflakes fly around November 1.
Since summer does not last forever, I spend as much time as possible in my backyard. When not mowing or weeding, I sit in a chair, reading a book and sipping something. I glance up now and then to appreciate how lovely it all is.
A black locust towers over our house. The tree is in the front yard, but I can see its top, over the roof, from the backyard. It’s thing of beauty and a joy forever, especially with its green leaves yellowed by the afternoon sun.
There is a sound track, too. My favorite part is the catbird’s call.
This small gray bird, Dumetella carolinensis, flits about the backyard, perching in one of our tall spruces, or sometimes briefly in our forsythia, a red cedar, or my wife’s special Montmorency cherry tree.
“But tell me, O New Favorite Writer, how do you know your catbird’s a he? Couldn’t it be a she?”
No, Dear Reader. He could not. Which is something I did not know until I did a bit of research. It’s surprising what you can learn by writing a blog. More on catbird vocal dimorphism below.
For now, suffice it to say that Mister Catbird is a phenomenal singer and mimic, much like his Southern cousin Br’er Mockingbird.
And he does all his vocalizing from a kind of throne. Though our common robins, sparrows, and cardinals use the same trees and bushes, when Mister Catbird perches there, it becomes a special thing.
The Facts on File Dictionary of American Regionalisms says, “To be in the catbird seat means ‘to be sitting pretty, to be in a favorable position.’” The book, like other sources, calls it a 19th-century Southern Americanism but admits in a roundabout way that nobody ever heard of it until 1942, when James Thurber publicized Red Barber’s use of it.
James Thurber (1894-1961) was a cartoonist, writer, humorist, journalist and playwright—a literary icon whose work appeared often in the New Yorker. Today he is mostly remembered for his short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” but during his lifetime he published many stories, as well as humorous essays, memoirs, and cartoons. One of his stories is called “The Catbird Seat.”
I won’t give you any spoilers, in case you’d like to read this now somewhat dated, but still entertaining, story. What concerns us here is how it got its title. Its main character, a file clerk named Mr. Martin, is disturbed by a co-worker, Mrs. Bellows, who sprinkles her office repartee with a variety of odd expressions.
It was Joey Hart, one of Mr. Martin’s two assistants, who had explained what the gibberish meant. “She must be a Dodger fan,” he had said. “Red Barber announces the Dodger games over the radio and he uses those expressions–picked ’em up down South.” Joey had gone on to explain one or two. “Tearing up the pea patch” meant going on a rampage; “sitting in the catbird seat” means sitting pretty, like a batter with three balls and no strikes on him.
Red Barber (1908-1992), “the Old Redhead,” was a sports announcer who over a long career called major league baseball games for the Cincinnati Reds, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the New York Yankees. A native of Columbus, Mississippi, he spoke slowly, with a soothing southern drawl, countrified and unflappable even when describing the hottest action.
Did Barber ever use the phrase “in the catbird seat” before reading Thurber’s 1942 story attributing it to him? That must remain one of those enigmas lost in the mists of time.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the catbird seat as “a superior or advantageous position.” I guess that’s about right. “He’s sitting in the catbird seat” means he’s got no worries—however things turn out, he’s covered.
If you’re in the catbird seat you can sit aloof and entertain yourself with pretty songs while you wait for others to find out the bad news.
Our friend Mister Catbird perches, sometimes hidden by dense foliage, but always in a place where he can supervise the whole world. And he comments.
The Catbird’s Song
He sings one of the most complex songs of any bird. It’s a long, polysyllabic thing, a startling series of whistles, squeaks, squawks, and burbles. It lasts several seconds and is then repeated, only with its elements re-arranged.
That’s how I know it’s a he, Dear Reader. Because the catbird I’m hearing is not singing a normal “catbird” song, which is relatively brief and simple. Nor is he chirping the single meow-like syllable that gives him his name.
The complexity of Mister Catbird’s call comes from the fact that he’s imitating a series of other birds’ calls. Ornithologists think this is simply a way for a male catbird to show off, attracting the female of the species to his rich repertory of bird sounds. It’s like a guy who gets up at a party and rattles off a series of impressions—John Wayne, Dean Martin, Jimmy Cagney (“You dirty rat!”), Cary Grant (“Judy Judy! Judy!”) and on and on.
Only Dumetella carolinensis is actually a talented mimic, unlike our friend at the party.
Do yourself a favor, Dear Reader, and take five minutes to watch and listen to this YouTube video sponsored by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, in which Greg Budney, former audio curator of the Macauley Library, shows examples of catbirdmimicry.
After hearing all the calls the catbird masters in Budney’s video, you may imagine what it sounds like when they’re all run together by Mister Catbird in my backyard.
It makes me think of a general issuing detailed orders to the troops.
It sounds like an NFL quarterback barking a complex cadence before the ball is snapped—half of the syllables to inform his teammates about the play, the other half only to fool the opponents.
It’s the auditory equivalent of the gestures a third-base coach uncorks between pitches. You’ve seen it if you’ve ever been to a ballgame. He pats his left shoulder, rubs his elbow, taps his foot, shakes his head, doffs his cap, etc.—so his teammates will know what to do but the other guys won’t figure it out.
Even though I know Mister Catbird’s song is just an act to impress Miz Catbird, I still can’t shake the feeling that his baffling cascade of sounds must mean something.
He is, after all, in the catbird seat.
One could do worse than be a catbird.
But if it’s not in your power to be a catbird, the next best thing would be to recognize when you happen to find yourself in the catbird seat.
Today is the 248th Fourth-of-July in the era of the United States of America.
These days, gentlemen and ladies are apt to rush into battle over the Constitution, which became law thirteen years after Independence was declared. One of our three branches of government is largely absorbed by the task of discerning whether acts of government are within the Constitution or outside it. Then, once the Justices have their say, ladies and gentlemen rush to dispute the result, campaigning for either a change of heart or a change of Justices.
So, yes, the Constitution is important.
Yet in our darkest hour, our president, one of the great legal minds of his or any age, resorted not to the Constitution but to the Declaration of Independence, the more ancient document.
Abraham Lincoln reasoned that the Declaration preceded the Constitution. The Declaration in a sense fathered the Constitution and was superior to it—or at least more basic, more fundamental. The Constitution, he said, could not become a suicide pact for the nation; its strictest construction would not suffice for dissolving the Union.
The Constitution of 1789 codified the structure of government in a state that existed for larger purposes, announced in 1776. Before there was a Constitution, the Declaration of Independence already said “all men are created equal.” The Constitution—in which the framers parsed fractional numbers to satisfy fragmented constituencies—could not abrogate that original guarantee.
The Declaration’s 56 signers explosively asserted that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” and that “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. . . .”
This doctrine was the necessary foundation of revolutionary acts. Inconveniently, it happened that some who signed this guarantee of freedom owned slaves, whom they had no intention of letting go.
Thus the stage was set for the Civil War 85 years later. In the midst of that orgy of blood, the Chief Executive chose to force the republic back upon its first principles.
In the days when children were thought capable of learning things “by heart,” we memorized Jefferson’s stirring preamble to the Declaration easily. It came ringingly off the tongue, while the stilted phrases of the Constitution’s preamble got lost in a chorus of mumbling. To promote the general welfare is fine and dandy—but Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness are the heart of our national mission.
Therefore, starting in 1777, we have always celebrated July Fourth as Independence Day.
Seventy years ago, the young men of our family—my uncles—in the small town of Knoxville, Illinois, used to go to Gil Hebard’s gun store and buy fireworks. Not only pinwheels, fountains, and sparklers, but also skyrockets and miniature buzz bombs were legal then in the Flatlands.
Enveloped in the sultry evening, my uncles Dick and Garrett LaFollette, Earl Chaney, and Richard Henderson fired their sky-sizzlers with great gusto, arching them above a huge elm tree that overspread Grandma’s yard. After the main event, we kids lit snakes and sparklers and shot up rolls of paper caps in our cowboy pistols.
The Public Square across the street was littered with scraps of pastry left earlier in the day by piggish contenders who plunged their whole faces into the pie-eating contest under a hot sun. There had also been sack races, three-legged races, and giant slices of watermelon for everyone.
A reasonable person might wonder, what had these hijinks to do with the deep principles of liberty that Jefferson wrote into the Declaration of Independence? It’s hard to say, Dear Reader, but—something, surely.
The hoopla was connected with our liberty. Otherwise, why did we get up to these robust exertions on July 4, but never in the more moderate weather of Constitution Day, September 17?
Now, seven decades after the spectacles that enlivened my youth, we still make a big deal out of Independence Day. We still have picnics, speeches, fireworks, and tomfoolery. We poise our politicians over galvanized tanks and give everybody with a pitching arm the opportunity to dunk them in cold water.
There is something republican, and also democratic, about that.
There would not be much need to celebrate, had 56 brave souls not inked their signatures to a parchment 247 years ago and pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to the twin dreams of freedom and equality.
Happy Fourth, and be careful with those sparklers. If you don’t watch out you’ll put somebody’s eye out.