The Hole in Dad's Library
I am what I see, and what I’ve seen and where I’ve been. I am what you told me I am. But, mostly, I am what I have read. I cannot recite one sentence or stanza through recall, but it’s all in here somewhere in the pile of my shredded memories. Every fetching phrase, every glorious setting, every unlikely ending, all left their mark on me in some way. Books were part of the furniture in our apartment. Dad loved to read as an escape. In his youth, he fell in love with Charles Dickens, then his sister Barbara’s husband John presented him with the full set. The bookcase in the foyer was a low, long double-decker with storage below, Fifties-Contemporary meets utility. My father always fancied himself a carpenter of sorts, same as his father. The shelves were crammed and my earliest memories are of the railed prism of those front spines, covered and not, with words and designs intended to catch the eye conveniently situated at my then eye level. I couldn’t read yet. There weren’t any pictures beyond the paper covers and most of those were gone, or limited to a snapshot of the author and his faithful hound. Over in the paperback section, it was science-fiction and recent purchases of best-sellers, as my arrival altered the budget. The science-fiction bookcovers were a trove of art, plus many of them were double novellas, pasted together with each cover the flip-side of its opposite. Mindboggling images of stars and planets and rockets, drawn in a manner that helped prepare me for a few later encounters with hallucinogens. Of all those books on display, the one I spent the most time thumbing through was Dad’s Bluejacket’s Manual, issued to him at Great Lakes Naval Training Command in 1948.
The Bluejacket’s Manual bore a dark blue cover with silver embossed print, if memory serves. The year pressed into the spine was 1946, right below the embossed anchor. Inside were pictures of Navy signal flags, ship silhouettes, knot designs and drawings of all manner of dire situations at sea. Who needed to be able to read? This was real adventure opening up to me. Dad always spoke of his time in the Navy. His was a peacetime hitch, a short-lived offering of a two-year enlistment, with no veterans benefits attached to an honorable discharge. Dad isn’t much for regrets, but I think he regrets not re-enlisting. The Navy was his adventure. To this day, he thinks of himself as a sailor. The manual he brought home from the service was a lot of things. It was evidence of his contribution to the nation. It was an advertisement targeting an impressionable youngster. And it was my first encounter with the unfathomable power of a book.
Once I learned to read, it was picture books and comic books and funny papers, then newspaper sports pages and front pages and, when all else lay devoured and cast aside, the backs of cereal boxes. Force-fed by my parents, I advanced early to the abridged Classics, such as Treasure Island, Black Beauty and Tom Sawyer. I tried branching out to the adolescent mysteries my fellow third-graders were reading, but even then I knew the Hardy Boys were phony douchebags. I walked and ran by Dad’s books dozens of times a day, growing taller with each passing week. The Bluejacket’s Manual was still an occasional pleasure, but the dry writing eventually helped break me free of the book’s spell. I wasn’t ready for Dickens (turns out, I never would be), but there were two other books with naval themes on those shelves that haunted me from the start, leading directly from my attraction to Dad's training manual. One was The Bounty Trilogy by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, and the other The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk. I felt I was ready, at age eight, to tackle adult novels. I chose Wouk’s book first. If you don’t know the story, read the book. At least see the movie. Humphrey Bogart and Jose Ferrer are oddly perfect for their roles. At the time I started reading, I hadn’t yet seen the movie. I had no idea what I had gotten myself into until it was too late. I still haven’t escaped from the psychological grip of the novel’s elemental feature, that everyone viewed some part of the unfolding events incorrectly and everyone was responsible for everyone else’s wrong impressions. It was a classic exhibition of miscommunication and reaction at an assumed high level, albeit human, of military expertise. And this my first contact with real literature.
The Bounty Trilogy followed immediately after. A collection of three historically-based novels written in the mid-1930s and based on actual events in the British Navy in the late 18th Century, the trilogy told the story of the officers and crew of HMS Bounty. Read the books. See the movies. There really was a Captain Bligh, although he was probably a little better looking than Charles Laughton. And Clark Gable was, by far, the better Fletcher Christian over Brando. The Bounty story spanned a longer time frame and sported a different ending from the Caine affair. I spent a relatively long stretch getting through those books the first time. The ending was as seemingly inevitable as it was unlikely, simultaneously just and unfair.
I came away from those first two literary exercises a completely altered child. I’m certain I wasn’t conscious of the change in the moment, but I had fallen into a hole where the idea of any authority figure became ludicrous to me and seemed potentially dangerous to all of us. It turned out there were no great men, only men. This is a hell of a thing to be shown when you’re eight. And it explains my ongoing relationship with authority. I understand its power over me. I also understand its fear of someone like me. I turned out differently from other children, thanks to those books. I mutated while undergoing the same training that almost all of you survived unmarked. And all because Dad joined the Navy.