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I met noted poet Andrei Codrescu in the early 90s, as he drove his high-finned Cadillac convertible onto the lot of Ray Kroc’s first McDonald’s drive-in restaurant, now a company museum, in Des Plaines, IL. I guessed he was properly impressed, because he was to write in his book, “Road Scholar — coast to coast late in the century”, a commentary on his visit, including the conclusion, “Next to rock “n” roll, McDonald’s is the most enduring American creation of the second half of the twentieth century.”

Of course, being the cultural critic he continues to be today, nearly two decades after releasing the Peabody Award-winning filmed version of his book both in theaters and on PBS, as he interviews me ( I was then heading corporate communications for McDonald’s) wearing our vintage paper McDonald’s “crew” hats,  Codrescu observes that the immensity of the Midwest plains, “allows imperial daydreams to roll unimpeded.”  Was he trans-mutating the agricultural abundance of middle America with  Ray Kroc’s hopes and vision for the growth of McDonald’s? I suppose so. Sort of thing a displaced Transylvanian might do.

The following is from the poet’s website, http://www.codrescu.com:

Road Scholar: coast to coast late in the centuryHyperion, 1993Andrei Codrescu describes his coast-to-coast journey across the United States, discussing the beatniks, ex-hippies, and poets in New York’s East Village, a drive-through wedding in Las Vegas and other oddities. Inspired by Kerouac’s legendary paean to American wanderlust, On the Road, Codrescu sets out to discover for himself the wonders of the USA. Published to tie in with its companion PBS-TV special, the book sparkles with the author’s wit and sardonic humor. 60 photos.
Click here to order this Hardcover from Amazon.com Signed editions available from the author. Please email Andrei for more information.

“I heard the bells, on Christmas Day,
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

It was on this day in 1814 that Francis Scott Key wrote the poem that became “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The British had invaded and captured Washington on August 24th. After successfully destroying the White House, the Capitol building, and a lot of Washington, the British moved on to Baltimore, and had no interest in occupying it — they just hoped to destroy as much as possible, as a symbolic victory.

The British made their headquarters in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, and took over the plantation of the town doctor, Dr. William Beanes, who was elderly and well-liked. A young lawyer, Francis Scott Key, was incensed when he heard that Beanes had been captured and was being held on a ship, so he set off to rescue him.

Key was accompanied by John S. Skinner, an agent for prisoner release whom President Madison had sent along. The British commander, General Robert Ross, finally agreed to release Beanes after the Americans showed them some letters written by wounded British prisoners saying that Dr. Beanes was taking good care of them. But he wouldn’t let the three men leave until after the attack on Baltimore. They had to get on a sloop behind the British fleet and wait to see what would happen.

At Fort McHenry in Baltimore, there was a huge flag, 30 feet by 42 feet, easily visible from the British ships. Each of the 15 stars measured two feet between the points, and the stripes were two feet wide. A Baltimore seamstress and her 13-year-old daughter had sewn the flag by spreading it all out on the malthouse floor of a local brewery.

The British attacked Baltimore throughout the day on September 13th, and that night they sent more than 1,500 bombs, rockets, and cannon balls across the water at Fort McHenry. But Baltimore had been preparing for war for the past year, and it was well defended. Suddenly, the British stopped firing. From their boat, Francis Scott Key and the other men had no idea whether the British had succeeded or given up and retreated, and they could no longer see the harbor now that the sky was dark. So they had to wait all night, until the sky was light enough to see which flag was flying over the fort. And of course, the next morning the American flag was there.

Francis Scott Key scribbled down some ideas for a poem on the back of a letter that he was carrying. He was released later that day, and the next day, September 14th, he finished writing “Defense of Fort M’Henry,” which would later become the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” in a room at the Indian Queen Hotel.

Within five days, the poem was printed and circulated all over Baltimore with the directions that it should be sung to the tune of an English song, “To Anacreon in Heaven.” No one is sure exactly who figured out that the lyrics fit the tune of this popular drinking song. A well-known actor, Ferdinand Durang, stood on a chair and belted it out to an appreciative crowd at Captain McCauley’s tavern and became the first person to publicly sing what is now the national anthem of the United States.

It was on this day in 1962 that 88-year-old, four-time Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Robert Frost plunged into his goodwill tour of the Soviet Union. He really wanted to be able to meet with Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev. Frost said that he could envision “the Russian and the American democracies drawing together,” their distinctly separate ideologies eventually meeting in the middle.

The goodwill tour was arranged, and in late August the crew set off. Frost spent his days in the USSR giving poetry readings and interviews and lectures and otherwise being a very public persona. His readings were immensely popular, with enthusiastic audiences filling venues. Frost would burst out into spontaneous recitations of his famous works wherever he went.

For most of the trip, it was uncertain whether he was going to get a chance to meet with Khrushchev, which he wanted so badly. Then, toward the final days, he got word that such a meeting had been arranged, and he would get his big wish. He flew to Crimea, and he was so incredibly excited that he felt to sick too his stomach — he reported having terrible stomach cramps. He was going on 90, and there was talk of canceling the meeting, but Frost insisted that it take place. Khrushchev sent his own personal doctor ahead to attend to Frost. He was diagnosed with a case of nervous indigestion.

Khrushchev ended up coming into the bedroom at the guesthouse where Frost was resting, and it was there that, at the height of the Cold War, the leader of the Communist world and the aging American poet had their famous meeting. Each man praised the other man’s work. They talked of the future of capitalism and the future of socialism. Frost told Khrushchev: “A great nation makes great poetry, and great poetry makes a nation.” And then Frost daringly took a stab at discussing one of the Cold War’s central issues: He urged Khrushchev to reunite East and West Berlin. Khrushchev declined, and explained to Frost why it was important for the Soviet Union to keep it how it was. The two men talked for an hour and a half.

Frost died just about five months after his trip to the USSR. At the dedication of the Frost library in October of 1963, John F. Kennedy delivered a moving eulogy, where he said: “Our national strength matters, but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much. This was the special significance of Robert Frost. He brought an unsparing instinct for reality to bear on the platitudes and pieties of society. His sense of the human tragedy fortified him against self-deception and easy consolation.”

From: The Writer’s Almanac

Farm fresh cherry tomatoes are one of the joys of August indeed. Our neighbor used to grow them, and we’d buy them by the bucket from his stand, split them, stir in some olive oil, a handful or two of shredded parmesan, oregano and pepper and splurge! Here’s a poem I found online, by that very name, which captures the sense of it.

Suddenly it is August again, so hot,
breathless heat.
I sit on the ground
in the garden of Carmel,
picking ripe cherry tomatoes
and eating them.
They are so ripe that the skin is split,
so warm and sweet
from the attentions of the sun,
the juice bursts in my mouth,
an ecstatic taste,
and I feel that I am in the mouth of summer,
sloshing in the saliva of August.
Hummingbirds halo me there,
in the great green silence,
and my own bursting heart
splits me with life.

“Cherry Tomatoes” by Anne Higgins, from At the Year’s Elbow. © Mellen Poetry Press, 2000.

Starfish
by Eleanor Lerman

This is what life does. It lets you walk up to
the store to buy breakfast and the paper, on a
stiff knee. It lets you choose the way you have
your eggs, your coffee. Then it sits a fisherman
down beside you at the counter who says, Last night
the channel was full of starfish. And you wonder,
is this a message, finally, or just another day?

Life lets you take the dog for a walk down to the
pond, where whole generations of biological
processes are boiling beneath the mud. Reeds
speak to you of the natural world: they whisper,
they sing. And herons pass by. Are you old
enough to appreciate the moment? Too old?
There is movement beneath the water, but it
may be nothing. There may be nothing going on.

And then life suggests that you remember the
years you ran around, the years you developed
a shocking lifestyle, advocated careless abandon,
owned a chilly heart. Upon reflection, you are
genuinely surprised to find how quiet you have
become. And then life lets you go home to think
about all this. Which you do, for quite a long time.

Later, you wake up beside your old love, the one
who never had any conditions, the one who waited
you out. This is life’s way of letting you know that
you are lucky. (It won’t give you smart or brave,
so you’ll have to settle for lucky.) Because you
stopped when you should have started again.

So life lets you have a sandwich, and pie for your
late night dessert. (Pie for the dog, as well.) And
then life sends you back to bed, to dreamland,
while outside, the starfish drift through the channel,
with smiles on their starry faces as they head
out to deep water, to the far and boundless sea.

“Starfish” by Eleanor Lerman, from Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds. © Sarabande Books, 2005. Reprinted with permission. From Writer’s Digest.

Happy the Man

by Horace

Happy the man, and happy he alone,
He who can call today his own:
He who, secure within, can say,
Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today.
Be fair or foul or rain or shine
The joys I have possessed, in spite or fate, are mine.
Not Heaven itself upon the past has power,
But what has been, has been, and I have had my hour.

The Road Not Taken

by Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

“The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. Public domain.

It’s Christmas Day. A new beginning…
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote:
“I heard the bells, on Christmas Day,
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Sir Walter Scott wrote:
“Twas Christmas broach’d the mightiest ale;
Twas Christmas told the merriest tale;
A Christmas gambol oft could cheer
The poor man’s heart through half the year.”

South of Walworth, WI

11/18/94

by Charles Ebeling

I cross a rolling winters’ field,

A rumpled patchwork lawn;

East of the waning moondark,

West of a reaching dawn.

Along this road of newborn light,

I glide into today;

Vague on my agenda,

But commuting, anyway.

May 2022
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