|Back in our day . . .||
I have spent several posts building up an image of a small child set upon from every direction, with no refuge, no place to go for respite or succor. Well, of course there was my aunt Marie, but I didn't have at-will access to her, so what could that small child do to get away?
Dream. Awake, asleep, it made no difference. I lived in a dream world of action and danger in which I was a heroic protector of those weaker than myself, a shield of the helpless that feared no man nor monster. I found my solace in solitude, and kept my sanity by learning how to make those alternate worlds real.
I was aided greatly in those efforts by books. One might expect a child of the '50s to say television, but our family came late to that medium, and anyway, television isn't for dreamers. Doubtless, it played its part, and when out for a play day with the neighborhood kids, I strapped on my cap-guns and laid claim to the character of Wyatt Earp or Wild Bill Hickok (always famous lawmen, you'll note) just like everyone else, but a television show gave me individual people fully realized as the characters; that wasn't me on the screen, that was Guy Madison, and it showed me actions fully formed. I was reduced to a passive spectator engaging no faculty beyond my eyes.
But books gave my dreams wings! I've noted previously how Great-grandma had me reading at the age of three, and books became my hideout of choice. If a book presented me with a car, it might be red or blue, large or small, but that car was constructed inside my imagination, and it looked like what I decided it looked like. Same with the passengers and the destination. They were all me. During the pre-school age, I read a lot of the Little Golden Books (fellow oldsters will remember those as a shared experience of American kids everywhere), and the titles that leap to mind are Little Toot, The Taxi that Hurried, and The Little Engine that Could. It is instructive to note that these, and many more I fancied, share a theme of a small, insignificant anthropomorphized machine that endures ridicule and scorn, then steps up in a crisis to become a hero. Coincidence, I'm sure. Another favorite was Uncle Wiggily's Travels (Howard R. Garis, 1913), one of a series about an engaging elderly rabbit-gentleman who teaches life-lessons to his nephew and niece, Sammie and Susie Littletail, as they walk through the woods.
When I arrived at Sunset View Elementary School in the fall of 1955, I found that they had a modest library that filled a converted office. The bookshelves were stocked with books that the librarian felt were grade-appropriate, and although I was in third grade, I went directly to the sixth-grade shelf; talking rabbits and reckless taxi-drivers had lost their appeal by then, and I wanted science books about dinosaurs and microbes, and documentaries about fire-fighters. One Friday afternoon, one of the volunteers decided that, being a third grader, I wasn't allowed to check out sixth-grade books, so I walked out. When I came to class Monday without my customary library book, my teacher, Mrs. Booth, asked if I had forgotten it. I explained what happened, and she reacted sympathetically and carried on with her day's duties. Next time I went to the library, that volunteer apologized to me, and I never had another problem. I didn't realize that a teacher would say anything to another adult on behalf of a child, but I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall during that conversation!
It was somewhere in here that I discovered the "Boys' Own Grand Adventure Story." I've mentioned that my family shopped at Goodwill, the Salvation Army, Value Village, and so forth. In thrift stores of that time, whatever toys came in were piled in a bin to be picked through. That was usually where I was while the grandmas were shopping, but one time the toys were lame, and I went in search of games or jigsaw puzzles, I don't remember which. Anyway, what I found was a wall of books, Sunset View's library on steroids, and the book I pulled out was The Seagoing Tank (Roy J. Snell, 1924). The fourth book in the Radio-Phone Boys series, this was a sci-fi adventure of the first order that involved a vehicle the size of a suburban house driving on tracks across the ocean floor to one adventure after another. It starred a couple of teenagers who were constantly saving the adults' bacon as well as their own, and I was hooked. This was what I was looking for, rip-snorting adventure stories that didn't fuss too much over getting every niggling detail of physics exactly right, and not allowing romance and bouts of depression to get in the way of the action. I'm still looking for those stories, and when I can't find them, I write them. I'm still hooked!
At the age of 13, I discovered my second refuge, and one that would carry me well into adulthood: Games. Not just any games, but games in what was for a brief, golden age, a niche market that exploded beyond all reason to become a major hobby of many young gents of the era. These were wargames, table-top recreations of battles and wars, most historical, some outright fantasy. Instead of a stylized map of Atlantic City, you played on a highly accurate map of the land surrounding the village of Gettysburg (for example). Instead of a ship, a dog, or an old shoe, your playing pieces represented the actual formations that clashed outside that little crossroads in the summer of 1863. The rules were to regularize the movement of the infantry, cavalry, and artillery over the various types of terrain, and when the formations came to grips, dice rolls recreated the Fog of War. There were literally hundreds of titles recreating every battle known to man, and for thirty years I threw myself into leading military units on the great campaigns of history. My collection peaked at about 80 titles, and I may have played twice that many in the course of playing other peoples' games.
But my preferred method was always solitaire. Whenever two gamers got together, the battle on the board always seemed to spread to include the participants, as it was inevitable that a dispute over the often imperfect rules of the simulation would arise: "It takes three movement factors to cross that stream!" "Uh-uh! It's only two millimeters wide in that space, so it only takes two!" Something like this could lead to pistols in the front yard, and while it was refreshing to engage another mind in the maneuver of armies, I always preferred solitaire, moving first one army, then moving to the other side of the board and moving the other. My personal friends became Robert E. Lee, U. S. Grant, George Patton, Erwin Rommel, "Bull" Halsey, and Isoroku Yamamoto, among hundreds of lesser lights. I've lead the Afrika Korps through the desert, and the mighty 7th Fleet across the Pacific, and by trying alternate strategies, learned things about history that books can't teach. But in the early days, I was hiding. Be it the Libyan desert, the beaches of Normandy, or a stinking green flyspeck on a tropical sea, that's what I was doing, by any other name.
So what does all this talk of refuge, hiding, and solace have to do with heroism? Well, it all came with a need to prove myself to myself. That led to a four-year engagement with the navy during a vicious, nasty, no-quarter war with an insidious and implacable enemy. I took my turn in that arena and emerged unscathed. I served on a wooden minesweeper not much bigger than a tuna clipper, and rode her through two hurricanes. I've ridden an oil tanker through a Pacific typhoon as well, but compared to the 'sweep, that was child's play. I learned the craft of being a sailor as well as a demanding technical trade in naval communications. I've been subordinate, and been in charge, and done well in both roles.
I speak ill of the navy on occasion, but it isn't their fault. There are people you can't pound into a square hole, and I learned that I am one of them, but those four years taught me that I can do anything, and that golden thread of belief in self has been woven into my life ever since. Couple that with the loyalty I express toward anyone who demonstrates that they have my back, and I flatter myself that I'm a pretty good person to have on your side; but you'll have to ask my wife to get the final answer to that question.
But to the grandkids, and any young person who may be reading this, the message here is Dare to Dream. Look, all kids are put upon. They're all buffeted by the whims of often unreasonable adults against whom they have no protection. Get inside your own head, find out who you are, and develop the person that you find into the best person he or she can be. My religion offers this proverb:
"He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened."
Truer words were never spoken! Now get out there and live life like you mean it!
All the best,
This is for the grandkids, the family, close friends, and anyone else who can keep a civil tongue in their heads! It amounts to an interactive book of memoirs, but only if you interact... so get to it!
E-mail subscriptions now available
California has been my home since 1965. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. I'm home to stay!
What is there to say about a ten-year old turning 65, besides, what the hell happened?!??