As a boy, growing up in New London, Conn., a major whaling port in the 19th century, I read several books of whaling that came alive for me, including "Moby Dick." And with all the historic places around me, the same thing happened when I read books of the American Revolution, including "The Last of the Mohicans," "Drums Along the Mohawk," and many more.
But the process works the other way as well. One Christmas when I was 12 years old I received a Zane Grey novel set during Revolutionary War days.
It was "Betty Zane," a novel he wrote about an ancestor of his who valiantly carried gunpowder to the walls of the fort in her apron during a battle. If you haven't read it, you should.
I loved it, went searching for more of his books, and found "Riders of the Purple Sage." The image of the Arizona Rim Country captured in those pages did two things: First of all, I read more of his books. Secondly, when I got older and more mobile I went looking for the wonderful places he described. To make a long story short, here I am.
I read John Masters and Rudyard Kipling when I was stationed on the Indian subcontinent; Dickens and Hilton and Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie and many others while I was in England.
But the most realistic reading experience I have ever had occurred in Iceland. Along with two friends, I had volunteered to live in and guard a warehouse full of equipment in an incomplete radar station way out in the wilds of Iceland. There was no water, electricity, sewage, or furniture.
We had three bunks, an oil heater and a Coleman lamp. It was spring; daylight lasted a couple of hours. We stayed there 24-7, eating C-rations we warmed up on the stove.
One "day," Bob Pray and Hank Durfee, my two buddies, got in the truck and drove off, headed for the base, a shower, mail, and a resupply of C-rations.
I sat down to read a book by the glow of the Coleman lamp. The silence was palpable, the kind of silence that can only be experienced in a place where snow still blankets everything. The only sound was the hiss of the Coleman lamp. The book was "Who Goes There" by John W Campbell, a book about an alien monster who attacked a remote military station in the far north. They later made a movie about it: "The Thing."
Suddenly, out of nowhere someone, or something, began beating on the walls of the warehouse, apparently trying to break in. Whoever -- or whatever -- it was, it was so large that it shook the huge doors of the warehouse the way a dog shakes a rag. I jumped straight up in the air, thinking it was coming right through the heavy metal doors after me.
Grabbing my rifle -- and my 15 pitiful rounds of ammunition -- I shut off the Coleman lamp and headed for the window. At first I could see nothing.
Then my eyes grew dark-accustomed and I saw a 50-foot long monster with dozens of long dark protrusions poked skyward. The protrusions waved in the air, pounding against the walls of the warehouse. Over the pounding came very angry sounds, some kind of alien language, I thought.
I did a foolish thing. Heart in mouth, I found my flashlight, opened the door, and pointed it and my rifle in the direction of the monster.
And so, I chased off a crowd of communist Icelandics who had, I suppose, decided that picking on a poor, innocent warehouse was an appropriate way to express their political beliefs. The 50-foot long "monster" turned out to be about 40 or so men; the skyward pointed, waving, pounding protrusions -- a collection of two-by-fours; the alien sounds, the voices of men yelling in Icelandic. Sure sounded alien to me. The best part of it all? It turned out that they were the same workmen who were building the dang radar station. I tell you, though, it sure made that book an exciting read!