(Don’t forget, next week is Image Week. If you have a painting, illustration, or image you would like to include, email it to me. SB SM)
by SB Alec (Vermont SBs)
“What was one of your favorite stories as a child?” When this question landed in my inbox this morning, I was reading a passage from one of my favorite stories as an adult. The following excerpt from Ivan Doig’s novel The Whistling Season strikes me as true and also as a good springboard vis-à-vis the question:
“The Rembrandt light of memory [is] finicky and magical and faithful at the same time… I have learned to rely on a certain radiance of detail to bring back the exactitude of a moment.”
So if I shine a Rembrandt light on the Hastings family’s encounters with reading, I see a few of them with exactitude. I see, for instance, Mom tucking us into bed, planting a goodnight kiss on our foreheads, and leaving Dad seated in a chair about to open a book under the light of a bedside lamp. As Mom’s footsteps retreat down the stairs, I squint at the book’s cover.
“What is this story about?” I ask.
“It’s about a bear named Winnie-the-Pooh.”
“Oh. Can I see the cover?” I ask.
I wondered, at that moment, if I would like the book. I wasn’t sure Pooh was a good name for a hero, and there could be no doubt he was the hero of the book if his name was on the cover, right? But then, I trusted Dad, so I decided to listen and give Pooh a chance. Dad held the book up so I could see the illustration. The picture showed a bear—presumably Pooh— standing on his hind legs with arms akimbo. He was looking at a gray donkey who, in turn, was inspecting a crockery pot at the bear’s feet. Standing to one side of the bear was a small animal with pointy ears. I would soon learn that the perpetually gloomy donkey was named Eeyore, and the pointy-eared, timid little friend of Pooh’s was Piglet. The piece of crockery was a honey pot. Pooh was, indeed, the likable, but unlikely hero of these stories. I say unlikely because even he called himself a “bear of little brain,” and it was hard for me to imagine a hero with little brain. He did have a lot of heart, however. He was kind and generous. His only real failing was a too-great love of honey, but perhaps this can be forgiven since he was a bear, and all bears love honey.
As it turned out, I loved Winnie-the-Pooh. I remember once, as a teacher, hearing that my students might not remember all I taught them, but they would remember the kind of person I was. That has been my experience with books as well. I don’t remember everything Pooh did, but I will always remember Pooh himself. I learned from hearing the story of this amiable bear that heroes don’t always carry six-shooters and run off rustlers. Sometimes they are just ordinary folk who make all our lives better because of their friendship and their cheerful outlook on the world. “What?” you ask. “Nothing of the story itself?” No, not really, because I wouldn’t deprive you of the pleasure of spending a day with Pooh yourself if you never have. But I will say this. Whenever I think of the day Pooh and Piglet tracked the Heffalump or the day Pooh got his head stuck inside a honey jar or the day Tigger arrived, I remember that Mr. Milne was a cracking good storyteller, and suddenly I am eager to read his books again and return with you to Pooh Corner myself.
In those early reading experiences, the pictures were almost as important as the story. When I see Pooh and his friends in my mind’s eye, they are always the figures I remember from Ernest Shepard’s illustrations. And when I see Rat, Mole, and Toad from The Wind in the Willows, they are indelibly Shepard’s creations too. I think this love of illustration was shared by Scott and Duncan. I’m sure Dad helped inspire our appreciation. He learned to draw as a boy, I suppose, and continued to use that skill all his life. He had a collection of prints showing men in uniform from Britain’s Scottish regiments. I still remember the meticulous drawings he did using those prints as guides. So this love of illustration accompanied our reading experiences for a long time after we finished with books for the younger set.
For several years in fact, we “read” stories that had more pictures than words! These cheap, wildly popular little magazines were called comic books, and they told the stories of super heroes like Superman, Batman and Robin, Spiderman, the Fantastic Four, and the X-Men. We collected these mags, hid them in our bedrooms, posted NO TRESPASSING signs on our doors, and always read them with one ear cocked for the sound of an intruder. All this caution was necessary, of course, because comic books and been known to walk off and disappear only to be found later in someone else’s bedroom.
Talk about role models, those super heroes really embodied that American notion that, “you can do anything if you put your mind to it.” I can still see one of my favorite heroes, The Flash, running so fast he became a blur. Wow!—I have often wished I had his speed. Eventually, we set our comic books aside with other “childish things,” but I still enjoy stories with pictures, and I don’t think I’m alone. Scott told me that—many years later—he read The Scottish Chiefs in its entirety while waiting at the hospital for Asia to be born. I remember that book too, and I particularly remember the cover art by N.C. Wyeth. Wyeth also illustrated Treasure Island and Robin Hood, two of my favorites.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Eventually, we brothers learned to read on our own, and as Duncan said, the nightly bedtime story came to a screeching halt. By that time, Dad had finished our Cape Cod house in Happy Valley. He was getting his Scottish imports business off the ground (a.k.a. Hastings Highland House), and Mom was constantly cooking, cleaning, canning, freezing, weeding, preserving, knitting, mending, etc. I can imagine them downstairs the first night all three of us were able to read ourselves to sleep, Dad whispering to Mom, “Thank God!” It must have been a relief, finally, for them to tuck us in, and—instead of sitting down to read about Toad stealing a car and going to prison in The Wind in the Willows —being able to say, “Okay, you can read until eight o’clock. Then, lights out, and no monkey business!”
And I think it was fine with us. We inherited en masse the books Dad read as a boy. When I talked with Duncan and Scott today, we reeled off a list of titles as if we’d read them yesterday: The Motorboat Boys on the Columbia River, The Boy Allies in (Belgium, France, etc. take your pick), The Hardy Boys and the Tower Mystery (or any other number of mysteries), Tom Swift and His Flying Machine, Tom Slade on the River, Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar, and so on. I remember Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm which seemed like an outlier amongst all the others, but I suspect it was Mom’s, and she hoped against hope that one of us might adopt one of her childhood favorites. At any rate, we took up reading with all the same fervor we expended on building secret forts, digging tunnels through snowbanks, mining garnets from the stonewall next to the house, adopting frogs in the six-foot dimple of a pond in the old brickyard next door, and climbing trees (especially the forbidden one close to the house but out of sight of Mom’s kitchen window). Sometimes we read after curfew with flashlights. Most nights we conked out quickly after a day of nonstop bike riding, ball playing, wrestling, sword fighting, and tobogganing. Duncan and I fondly remember the shelves Dad built into the knee wall of the upstairs bedroom we shared. We stored many small treasures on those shelves (including my shell collection), but the books—within arm’s reach of our beds—took up most of that space. Stretched out comfortably under the covers, our heads propped up on pillows, we read and read, began finally to yawn, and slipped into dreamland while Mom and Dad pursued their own interests downstairs without interruption. Those bookshelves—good idea, Mom and Dad!
After we exhausted the small library we had inherited from Dad, the folks put Plan B into action. Plan B was designed to further our education and continue entertaining us in the evenings. We began weekly visits to Woodstock’s Norman Williams Public Library, a routine that lasted for years. While Mom and Dad visited the grown-up section, we explored the Children’s Room where—eureka!—we discovered the Freddy the Pig books. I say “we,” but certainly it was Scott, the oldest, who discovered Freddy first, and Duncan and I fell in step afterward as fans of these wonderful books in which Freddy was a pilot nonpareil, a dextrous magician (even with trotters), a detective equal to Sherlock Holmes, and always the hero called on to match wits with the villainous Simon, wily leader of a gang of criminal rats.
I always thought the library, built in 1883 by brothers Norman and Edward Williams on the site of their parents’ former home and given to the town in their parent’s honor, was more like a church than the one we attended every Sunday. It must have been tempting for the “townies” to play hopscotch on the three-foot squares of slate which paved the walk to its front door, but I don’t remember ever seeing any chalk marks there. A sense of being close to something special must have discouraged such desecration. We had to climb several sets of granite steps to reach the portico. Not long ago, I stood on the top step and thought about the architect’s design, how it could make a newly arriving patron feel… what? A little elevated? A little removed from the pedestrian world of the sidewalk? Most of all, perhaps, a little excited at being on the threshold of discovery? For that’s what all those books just beyond the door represented to me.
Remembering its sills of Barre granite, the walls of red stone from Burlington, the roof of dark gray Poultney slate, I hear a voice I might have heard as boy. It says, “you are about to enter a citadel of knowledge, a place where the dead can speak, … quietly please.” Back then, each time I passed through the Roman arches framing the entrance, I could just as well have been stepping into an H.G. Wells’ Time Machine, for on the other side of the door I might encounter Natty Bumpo or King Arthur or mad Captain Ahab. The place was just a little otherworldly. It was no coincidence that the length of the building (the nave) corresponded to the long axis of a Christian cross, and the two side wings (transepts) to the horizontal axis. This cruciform layout was typical of medieval cathedrals. Oak trusses soared upward to a ceiling so high it was lost in shadows. Heavy chandeliers suspended from that ceiling lit enormous oak tables topped in red leather. Were the display cases full of samurai swords and exquisite Japanese ivory carvings donated by a Christian missionary? I have no idea, but I do know that this sanctum of sanctums inspired awe. Of course, being boys, we didn’t stay awed forever. Not so many years later, we were meeting high school girls at those giant oak tables and being hushed by the white-haired librarian for making too much noise. Still, it remains a hallowed place in my memory, a place where my brothers and I pushed beyond the boundaries of Happy Valley into worlds beyond.
I hope this gives you a sense of how the Hastings boys became bookworms. In the end Dad was our greatest source of inspiration. Gramp read westerns—Zane Grey and Louis Lamour—and the newspaper almost exclusively. He had never completed his high school education because he contracted pneumonia as a freshman, but he managed to earn a living, so maybe reading seemed superfluous. By the time he dropped into his recliner at the end of a work day, I imagine he was just happy to rest, to watch Gunsmoke or the Red Sox, read an escapist novel, and maybe nod off for a while. Like many Vermonters of his generation, he was already working hard by the age of eleven. Money was scarce and savings scarcer than hens’ teeth.
Mom and Gram read the Ladies Home Journal and Good Housekeeping, and in the sixties the family also had subscriptions to Time magazine and Life magazine. Life had fabulous photographs depicting current events around the world. Mom and Gram worked almost all of their waking hours trying to keep the family fed and clothed and comfortable, so reading must have presented a dilemma. I’m sure they believed in its value, but they must have been torn between that belief and the oft-held view that reading was a bit frivolous. Who had time?
But Dad was a special case. He worked as hard or harder than anyone, but he still found time to read. No doubt Gram encouraged him as a boy—she was a teacher herself, after all—or maybe books and knowledge just attracted him like a gigantic electro-magnet. Whatever the reason, he was a voracious reader with catholic tastes all his life. He was a great fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories, the works of Rudyard Kipling, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and countless other books, fiction and nonfiction, and his enthusiasm for reading was infectious. I remember him saying once that you can teach yourself almost anything if you know how to read. I have always found that advice useful. I am grateful to him for turning me into a bookworm, and I’m sure Scott and Duncan feel the same.