Monday, June 27, 2011



                One of the best things about the house on Travis was its proximity to the Public Library, just across 13th Street from the vacant lot next door.  It was a red brick building in the middle of a square block of well tended lawn and shrubbery.  The grounds provided a great area for touch football and other games and four times around the block was close to a mile; I ran that every morning before breakfast for years.  But it was inside the building that I found my greatest entertainment.  

          Even though my father did not graduate from high school (I'm not sure he even got there), he was well educated.  He was an avid reader and immediately obtained a Library Card.  After accompanying him several times while he selected and checked out books, I was ready to strike out on my own.  I obtained my own Library Card and attempted to check out some books.  I had been reading the ones my father checked out prior to that.  The Librarian refused to let me check out "Adult" books on a "Child's" card and sent me downstairs to the Children's Section in the basement.  Boy, the shelves were loaded: The Bobbsie Twins, The Rover Boys, and even the entire Horatio Alger series for the advanced readers.  But I wasn't interested in anything available for kids.  I returned home, frustrated and possibly, but not likely in tears, and told my father what had happened.  "Good old Dad", in his overalls, immediately marched, with me in tow, over to the Library, up the stairs and to the checkout counter.  In a commanding but not particularly loud voice he said to the librarian behind the counter, "This is my son, he can read and he has my permission to check out any book in this Library". 

I never went down to the Children's Section again, but I haunted the Main Library.  Early on I got hooked on authors.  I checked out Captain Blood probably because the title was promising.  After finishing it, one by one I cleared the shelf of everything written by Rafael Sabatini; after Riders of the Purple Sage all of Zane Grey's followed suit.  Not in order, I consumed the complete works of Alexander Dumas, Rudyard Kipling (including the poems), all of Edgar Rice Burroughs, not just the Tarzan series, but the good ones like The Mucker, Voyage to the Center of the Earth (one of the first and still among the best Science Fiction novels), Mark Twain, and James Fennimore Cooper.

           No doubt I missed some of the subtle nuances because of my youthful naivete; I enjoyed Gulliver's Travels without knowing anything about Jonathan Swift or realizing it was a satire.  To me it was just a good, well written story.  The same was true of the works of Charles Dickens; I was totally engrossed in them as descriptions of life among the poor in England, not as condemnation of the socioeconomic structure of contemporary England in Dickens' time.  I guess there was sex in some of the books I read, Sabatini's heroes were always saving beautiful young women from pirates, Zane Grey's taciturn cowboys invariably rescued the rancher's daughter from the outlaws, but they were much less explicit as to the precise way the rescuee showed her appreciation to the rescuer than in later novels.  The point, however, is that whatever happened was part of the book and had nothing to do with me.  I suppose the reason that Librarian would not let me check out adult books was that someone in the management structure was afraid some young boy would read something that would turn him into a "sex fiend" or at least encourage masturbation.  Boys that age do very well on that score -- about the same with or without encouragement.

          Catholic is the best description of my early taste in literature.  I wanted to read EVERYTHING in the Library.  Later, I discovered murder mysteries through S. S. Van Dine; after finishing off his shelf, I went through Agatha Christie and various others.  Then I discovered Roy Chapman Andrews, Richard Halliburton and other "true" adventure stories such as the books on East Africa  by Osa and Martin Johnson.  I was late into Hemingway, but once started, I couldn't stop.

          Because of my compulsion to read everything, I had to learn to read fast and long.  I preferred to read a book in one sitting.  I even read Gone With the Wind nonstop even though it took me almost two days and all one night.  I still prefer to read a book from cover to cover, but seldom have enough time. That's one of the few pleasures of transcontinental and, especially, transoceanic flights.  You can start a book and finish it without ever putting it down, even during meals.  As a matter of fact, you don't even notice the meals if it's a good book.

          My early reading habits have made things much easier for me professionally than they otherwise would have been.  It started in elementary school: since I read at the adult level, everything in the textbooks was boringly simple.  Also, I had already read about everything covered in history, geography, and literature.  I always knew more than the simplistic coverage at the fifth grade level provided.  That sometimes got me into trouble when the teacher didn't; if I challenged something in the textbook, always defended by the teacher, and proved it wrong with a book from the library, the teacher almost always took it as a personal affront and I was branded  a "Smart Alec."

 In a high school English class the teacher, Miss Ida Jane Collins, as I'm sure she subsequently regretted, asked me for my reaction to the day's assignment "The Raven" by Edgar Allen Poe.  I said that I wondered whether he wrote it while drunk or during a hangover.  She became visibly agitated and demanded that I explain myself.  I then pointed out that Poe had been expelled from West Point, married his first cousin, lost several jobs because of his excessive drinking and died from it shortly after the death of his teenage wife.  The class howled with laughter and Miss Collins, taut but under control, told me to leave the room. 
A  few minutes later she appeared at the stairwell where Iwas sneaking a forbidden smoke, and, with tears running down her cheeks, asked me how I could do such a thing to Edgar Allen Poe. In retrospect, I wonder whether she knew of the seamy side of that tainted genius.  I know the other kids didn't, but they loved it.  Incidentally, I don’t remember Miss Collins ever calling on me again. 

I eventually learned to keep my mouth shut most of the time, just answering the questions on the quizzes, and content that if there were not many challenges at least I never had to study.  I never took a book or assignment home from Fourth Grade through High School.  English composition was "duck soup"; I never bothered to learn the rules of punctuation or even what a "gerund" was.  I could "diagram a sentence" correctly almost by instinct.  I had read so much well written prose, that I just knew what was bad when I saw it.  Themes and book reports were sometimes a problem, especially the first assignment with a new teacher.  They usually couldn't believe that a kid in their class could write that well, so I was viewed with, at best, suspicion or, at worst, accusations of having copied the report, theme, etc. from some book.

 I have always enjoyed writing, doing it easily, fast, and, I think, well.  I attribute it almost entirely to that early immersion in reading; I suppose I owe the Wichita Falls Public Library and, especially, my father a belated vote of appreciation for their encouragement.  Thank God there was no television then, and I never cared for Comic Books.  I didn't even listen to Jack Armstrong, The All American Boy, The Shadow (" who knows what evil lurks in the night?  The Shadow knows") or The Lone Ranger on the radio if I had a good book.

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