“I told you to turn out the light ten minutes ago.” Mom said from the bottom of the stairs. ”I’m waiting, Michael.” I reluctantly twisted the switch on the light above my bed, and was enveloped in total darkness until my pupils adjusted.
“Good night, honey,” she said in an almost apologetic tone. She often fell asleep sitting on the couch with a book on her lap, usually one of Bruce Catton’s thick paperbacks on the Civil War.
When I was confident that she was back on the couch, I groped under my bed for the flashlight, positioned it on my shoulder, pulled the blankets over my head, pushed the button, and scooched down until the beam illuminated my book. It was surely not a text book, probably an adventure story about pirates or cowboys.
We were among the last in our neighborhood to have a television. Missing Howdy Doody made me feel deprived then, but without flickering gray images on the screen until I was twelve, I was accustomed to curling up with books. I had experienced the bittersweet disappointment that accompanies finishing a good book.
Wrapped in brown paper and tied with twine, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn arrived the week before Christmas when I was in the fifth grade. The New Mexico return address signaled it was from Uncle Edward and Aunt Laura. Dad told me that I would laugh when I read about Tom painting a fence. I read it first and enjoyed all Tom and Huck’s mischief. Huck’s adventures on the Mississippi inspired my friend Ronnie and me to launch wood rafts buoyed by inner tubes on nearby Alum Creek. Our short journeys in a stream with water seldom over our heads were uneventful compared to Huck’s troubles on the wide and deep Mississippi. These books began a lifetime of reading. I have rarely been without a book since then.
Comic books never obsessed me like they did so many of my friends. Only the Blackhawk comics captured my imagination and my dimes. Seven bold pilots of different nationalities, veterans of WW II, vanquished a series of villains bent on world domination. I find myself thinking of their camaraderie when chauvinistic nationalists seize opportunities to oppress other countries. Where are the Blackhawks? I wonder.
I found a dozen of Dad’s Tom Swift books in a box in the attic. Tom Swift and his Motor Cycle, Tom Swift and his Electric Rifle, Tom Swift and his Photo Telephone and several more brown books from the early decades of the twentieth century. I devoured them on long winter evenings. Sometimes I couldn’t leave Tom at moments of great peril and read on under the blankets. Rover Boys on the River and Rover Boys in the Mountain were next. Sketches showed the boys in knickers, argyle socks, and caps in the twenties, but they had grand adventures. I relished turning the pages Dad had turned as a boy.
I watched the mailbox every week for the Saturday Evening Post. I took a moment to appreciate the Norman Rockwell paintings of Americana on the cover and paged through the cartoons when each issue arrived much as I do now with the New Yorker. In the winter, the hot air floor register was a good place to sit and read C. S. Forester’s stories about Captain Horatio Hornblower, master of a British warship in the age of sail. Although I was unaware of their literary reputations, I may have read stories by Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Faulkner, and Vonnegut who were regular contributors.
Sister Miriam, my 6th, 7th, and 8th grade teacher, assigned Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire.” My buddies and I had tromped around in the woods near our subdivision after wet snows. I understood the challenge of starting a fire when everything is wet and dripping. I was with the man in the wilderness as he struck his last match, nursed a tiny flame on a twig, and relieved when a teepee of small sticks began to burn. I gasped when a handful snow, thick and wet, fell off a pine bough and snuffed out the small, smoking fire. Surely he won’t die, I thought, but he did. He did not live happily ever after, the outcome in children’s books. Sister sent me to the library for London’s Call of the Wild and White Fang. Another book that caught my attention was Jules Verne’s “To the Center of the Earth,” an early science fiction adventure.
Sister read us some “tall tales” told around campfires in frontier days. She warned us that these stretched the truth. In one, a grizzled, old guy said, “Pecos Pete, the best bronco breaker in the West, rode every wild horse cowboys captured and took to him. The only time he ever got thrown was when he tried to ride a tornado in Oklahoma.” He chuckled and added, “It was too much for even old Pete.”
An old timer said, “It was so cold in the Rockies one winter that the snow turned blue—bright blue,” he insisted. Another cowboy said, “The Arizona desert gets so hot that chickens lay hard boiled eggs.”
We knew that these were not true. Our catechism said it is a sin to bear false witness. A classmate said, “Those stories were lies, and lies are sins”. Sister didn’t challenge the catechism, but suggested that a tall tale might be fun to tell and hear around a fireplace on the trail. Everyone of us knew tall tales weren’t exactly true. In fact, they might be greatly exaggerated or even made up, but it would be fun. Someone else around the fireplace might invent a better tall tale. She said it’s all right to stretch the truth a little to have fun. Then she asked us to write a tall tale. We had a license to lie. This made our homework a bit daring and even fun.
At St. Charles, English classes included grammar, composition, fiction and poetry. We spent the better part of one year dissecting Vanity Fair, a thick Victorian novel that centered on the ambitious Becky Sharp, her rich friend Amelia Sedley, and their romantic fortunes. A social satire set in England in the previous century did not stir the passions of young teenage boys. We slogged through the year, but most of us were not inspired to read more of William Makepeace Thackeray’s novels.
Father Duffy’s choice of The Caine Mutiny, a novel of love and war, had much greater appeal. We were boys in the decade after World War II. Our fathers, uncles, and neighbors rose to the challenge and triumphed over the goose-stepping Germans in Europe and the fanatical Japanese in the South Pacific. We watched heroes in uniform like Audie Murphy and Sergeant York in movies with stirring soundtracks. Our president was the victorious commander, often referred to as General Eisenhower.
Father introduced us to layers of meaning, symbolism, and grand themes in literature. I was surprised to learn that the pudgy, soft protagonist represented the country at the outset of the World War II, and that the slovenly Captain DeVries’ name intentionally rhymed with debris. The intellectual pressed into service was less admirable than the stolid, flawed naval veteran who thanklessly protected the country during peacetime. Father Duffy was determined to teach us that war stories were more than tales of derring do. He opened the door to additional levels of nuance and significance.
At Ohio State, I took an upper level course in Shakespeare, largely because it fit my work schedule at the Union Department Store. The Assistant Professor overflowed with enthusiasm as we read several plays and I drank it in great gulps. That summer I was delighted to see a performance of “Mid-Summer Night’s Dream” at Antioch College in nearby Yellow Springs, Ohio. Many years later I was thrilled to be in the audience at “Much Ado About Nothing” in the reconstructed Globe Theatre in London.
Over the years I read steadily when the press of family and work permitted. I plowed through most of Will and Ariel Durant’s volumes on history, art, and culture, and chose books on history and biography.
When I moved to Birmingham in 1982, I became a charter member of a book club led by Alan Perlis, the former Head of the English Department at UAB. Alan had five children and chose to sell real estate to support his family. He organized two or three book clubs to continue his love affair with literature. He gave lectures on the assigned book and led lively discussions. Our club has delved into more than 300 books ranging from Southern female authors one year to German post-war angst in another. We read classics like George Elliot’s Middlemarch and contemporary stories like The Goldfinch. Alan passed away last year, but our members still read and discuss. As Fitzgerald said, “so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
My reading has moved from paperbacks and hefty hardcover books to an electronic reader—much to my wife’s relief. No longer do I plead to keep the light on my side of the bed lit “for just a little longer.” Reading the screen, tilted thoughtfully away from my wife, occasionally reminds me of reading under the blankets with the flashlight so many years ago.