How well do you know yourself? “Really well,” you say? Are you sure? I thought the same thing for a long time — for more than 40 years, in fact. And then, one day about 30 years ago I was reading a book and suddenly, right out of the blue, I learned something about myself I had never suspected. It came as quite a shock. So much of a shock that I can remember that moment about as well as I remember anything in my life. I’ll tell you about it.
I’m a reader. Been a reader all my life. Caught the reading bug back when I was just 7 or 8 years old. One day Miss Banke, a teacher in Public School 16 on Staten Island, told us we were going on a field trip. You should have heard the cheer. The classroom sounded like the Victory Theater on Saturday afternoon when the cartoons came on. “Yay-y-y-y!”
Kids cheered things in movie theaters back then, you see. The only time we ever saw anything moving around on a screen was once a week at the movies — if we were lucky. It cost two cents to get into the Victory Theater for a weekday matinee — and a nickel on Saturday. For twice that nickel, Mom could send me to the store to buy enough store cheese to make macaroni and cheese for four, so nickels for movies were not easy to come by in 1939.
My! My! Have times changed! (For the better, in case you haven’t noticed.)
And no, I am not one of those who pine for the “good old days” when we wore shoes with holes, soles patched with a slab of thin cardboard, pants with such a shine on their seats it was hard to keep from sliding out of your desk in school, and hand-me-down mittens that reached all the way up to your elbows.
Anyway, I remember the cheer, but I don’t know how long it lasted when Miss Banke told us we were going to the Staten Island Public Library. It may have simmered down a bit. But then again, maybe not. After all, it was Miss Banke making the announcement.
Miss Banke was by no means a typical 1930’s NYC public school teacher. She was not 180 years old, thin as a rail, armed with a tongue so sharp it could cut the shirt off your back, and topped by gray barbed wire twisted into a tight bun. Nor was she the other kind — the kind fitted with linebacker shoulders, wrestler arms, bulldog face, steel-belted corset, and kid-killing ruler.
Uh-uh! No way! Miss Banke, the whole class believed, was the most beautiful thing that ever walked a classroom. She had dark eyes, dark hair, a bright smile, and a perfumed cloud that trailed her around the room as she passed from desk to desk helping us to come to terms with the triple mysteries of reading, writing, and that other thing. As she passed from row to row she turned the boys into slowly-melting lumps. And every girl in the class wanted to grow up and look just like that.
So I’m sure we cheered, even if the public library didn’t top our list of potential field trip destinations. And so, early the next week, as we passed through a high arched doorway, pre-warned by Miss Banke about the tomblike silence among shelves of sacred volumes, and the need to become part of that silence, we entered a world that I was destined to haunt for all my remaining years.
And each of us emerged with two great prizes!
One prize was a book, an actual book, entrusted to each of us to take home.
That was a big deal back then. Books cost money, and money was something nobody had. So walking out of the library that day with a book that cost more than any of us were likely to see until we were a lot older was really something. We treated them like treasures — which they were.
The other prize was even better — a library card! Suddenly I had a passport to the adult world of towering shelves and secret knowledge. I could pick out one — or even two! — books, take them home with me, and learn previously hidden secrets. What power! I felt like I had been given the key to the city.
I can still remember the book I took home that day, a book of Chinese fairy tales. In one of those tales a young boy had an amazing gift — he could swallow the sea and hold it in his mouth. His village, wanting to see such a wonderful thing, begged him to do it, but he demurred, worried that when the hungry villagers saw all those lovely, tasty fish lying there on the seabed, they would forget that he could only hold in the sea for a few minutes.
The villagers prevailed, but just as the boy had feared they might, they failed to return in time, he had to let the sea go, and the whole village drowned. It was to be another 15 years before I learned of things called tsunamis and realized that ancient tale was a pre-scientific explanation of why the sea at times receded, leaving fish flopping on the seabed. And why people who foolishly ran out to snatch up all those fish were drowned.
Thirty-five years later I was reading Ivan Sanderson’s “Book of the Great Jungles” when a truth dawned on me. I was still a reader despite the fact that I was, and still am, the active, out-of-door type. Before Lolly became ill, I hiked just about every inch of land around Pine for 10 or 12 miles in any direction. And my natural choice is to be outside, summer or winter, and doing something with my hands. But when the sun sets, instead of always heading for a TV set, I sometimes read.
But that day, as I was reading about one of the nasty old jungles of the world, something I had done many times before, always thinking I would like to hike them, something suddenly dawned on me. A thought popped into my head: “I enjoy reading about this place, but I don’t want to go there!”
Think of what a revelation that was to someone who was always outside. I had hiked the fields and woods of 10 states, the mountains of Utah, Japan, Iceland and California, and the deserts of Pakistan. And I had biked a lot of England and some of Europe, but as I read about the jungles — the heat, the sweat, the mold and mildew, the foot rot, the bugs, the snakes, the centipedes, the leeches — it came to me that the jungle was not the place for me.
What a surprise! It had never dawned on me before.
And the best part? I turned to Lolly, who was born in some of the heaviest jungle known — real tiger country, where a trip to town from her grandfather’s tea and coffee plantation meant women and children in bullock carts and the men walking beside them with rifles — and told her what I had just discovered about myself.
You know what she said, Johnny? “I could have told you that.”
Live and learn.
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