Nov 17, 2011

The Writer's Almanac for November 17, 2011

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Nov. 17, 2011

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Joyce Sutphen
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Voices on Jukebox Wax

by Walt McDonald,

Pulling our Stetsons low, we whispered songs
to sweethearts who clung so close we danced
in slow motion, heartache of steel guitars,
vows we swore with our bones. Their hair was the air
for an hour. We breathed and held them close,
ignoring the war for the night, voices
on jukebox wax winding around like a rope.
One week we kissed them hard and rode off,

swearing we'd bring back silk and souvenirs.
Long after a war no one we cared for
survived without scars, Earl and I are here
with wives as old as country songs and guitars,
our children older than all of us that fall.
Don's a name on the wall in Washington.
I hear his name sometimes in questions
at class reunions. I haven't heard from Carl.

"Voices on Jukebox Wax" by Walt McDonald, from Blessings the Body Gave. © Ohio State University Press, 1998. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this date in 1800, the United States Congress met in the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., for the first time. Construction had begun on the domed building in 1793, but it soon fell behind schedule and went over budget, so in 1796 the planners made the decision to build only the Senate wing. On move-in day, some of the rooms were still incomplete, but the building was sufficiently finished to accommodate the Senate, as well as the House of Representatives, the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, and some district courts. President John Adams had pushed for the move, even though the building wasn't complete, because he hoped to gain Southern votes for his re-election campaign.

The weather didn't cooperate, christening the first day of the new session and the new building with heavy snow. The welcoming parade had to be canceled, and congressmen were delayed trying to get to their offices, with only 15 making it into the chamber on opening day; it would be a further four days before enough senators were there to answer the quorum call and open the session. At that point, the House and Senate sent word to President Adams that they awaited his address. He arrived the following day; his was to be the last personal address to Congress by a president for the next 113 years.

Members of Congress were less than pleased with their new accommodations. Although richly appointed, the building leaked and had no heat. Washington was a primitive backwater, especially when compared to the civilized and well-established Philadelphia, where they had met for the preceding 10 years. One New York senator observed that Washington needed only "houses, cellars, kitchens, well-informed men, amiable women, and other little trifles of this kind" to make it perfect.

In its early days, the Capitol moonlighted as a church on the weekends; beginning with the Jefferson administration in 1801, church services were held every Sunday in the House of Representatives. Jefferson did not feel that this violated the separation of church and state, because attendance was voluntary and the services were nondiscriminatory — at least as long as you were Protestant, since all (and only) Protestant denominations were represented. Jefferson and his successor, James Madison, attended the services themselves. Worship services were expanded to include Catholic mass in 1826, and church meetings in the House continued until after the Civil War.

Both wings of the Capitol were completed just in time for the building to be burned by the British in 1814, during the War of 1812. Reconstruction began in 1815 and was completed in 1819; the first dome, however, wasn't complete until 1826. By 1850, with the ongoing influx of new states and their new congressmen, it was clear that an expansion was in order. Built largely by slave labor, the new Capitol was nearly twice as long, which threw it out of proportion to the original dome. In 1855, they tore down the old timber dome and replaced it with the cast-iron version we're familiar with today: three times the height of the original, and topped with a 20-foot statue of a woman holding a sword and a laurel wreath, known as Freedom Triumphant in War and Peace, or sometimes, Armed Freedom.

It's the birthday of author Shelby Foote (1916) (books by this author). He was born in Greenville, Mississippi, joined the Army in 1940, and became battery captain of field artillery in Europe during World War II; he was discharged in 1944 when he was caught sneaking off to visit a girlfriend in Ireland. After the war, he got a job as a reporter with the Delta Democrat Times, but spent too much office time writing fiction, according to the publisher. It paid off for Foote, however, because he sold his first story to The Saturday Evening Post in 1946, and his first novel, Tournament (1949) not long after that.

In the early 1950s, Bennett Cerf of Random House sent him a letter asking him to produce a short account of the Civil War in time for the war's centennial. Cerf wanted about 200,000 words; it wound up being almost eight times longer. The Civil War: A Narrative took 20 years to write and ended up spanning almost 3,000 pages in three volumes. It was published from 1958 to 1974; he wrote 500 to 600 words a day, longhand, using an old-fashioned dip pen. It took him four times longer to write about the war than it did to fight it, but whenever people pointed that out to him, he retorted, "There were a good many more of them than there was of me." Based on a recommendation by Robert Penn Warren, filmmaker Ken Burns approached Foote in 1985 and asked him to serve as consultant on an 11-hour Civil War documentary Burns was making for PBS. Foote agreed, and he became a national celebrity after the show aired in 1990; at one point he was receiving 20 calls a day from people who just wanted to have dinner with him.

On this date in 1970, Douglas Engelbart received a patent for the first computer mouse. He was working at the Stanford Research Institute when he first conceived the idea in the 1960s. Ever on the lookout for ways to benefit humanity, his research focus was on augmenting human intelligence through computers, and he wanted to develop easy, intuitive ways for people to interact with technology. "We had a big heavy tracking ball, it was like a cannonball," he told the BBC in 2001. "We had several gadgets that ended up with pivots you could move around. We had a light panel you had to hold up right next to the screen so the computer could see it. And a joystick that you wiggle around to try to steer things." He first demonstrated his "X-Y Position Indicator for a Display System" in 1968. It was a wooden shell over two metal wheels, and his team had been informally calling the small, boxy device a "mouse" in the lab, because the cord resembled a mouse's tail.

Englebart never received any royalties, and SRI ended up licensing the mouse to Apple for a mere $40,000. He was disappointed, but not because he lost out on the money. "It's strange because I've had my eye set on something way beyond that. It's sort of a disappointment that the world and I haven't yet got further," he said in 2001.

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