About the middle of the third grade, the tropical islands of the Pacific began to take on a special meaning for me. Someone gave me a book for Christmas, a wonderful book, one I read from cover to cover during the bitter cold New York winter of 1940, not once but three whole times.
What a book it was for an eight-year-old!
What a contrast with that miserable winter!
Outside the house the temperature plummeted. Heavy snow fell. Icy wind whistled around every corner. People scurried homeward. Snowdrifts clogged the streets. The whole city turned white.
But inside? There I was, leaning back in a comfortable chair, warmed by the glow of a kerosene heater, listening to soft music on the radio, and lost in the pages of a magical book.
Inside that book, a tall ship plowed the southern seas, its sails billowing out in the warm west wind, its bow cutting waves, its expectant crew swarming into the rigging each morning to catch the first sight of their secret destination, a lush tropical isle.
And below decks? Whispered talk of gold and jewels, of riches beyond counting, of the buried treasure of a ruthless pirate. And a young boy hiding in an apple barrel while rough and hardened men, unaware of his presence, plotted to take the ship the instant it reached its destination. And then....
Low down on the horizon the next morning appeared the soft outline of an island. The ship drew near, sighted an opening in the reef, sailed into a blue lagoon edged by tall palms. Sultry breezes rippled the sails as the anchor dropped....
It was, of course, Stevenson’s magical “Treasure Island.”
But it wasn’t the story which held me spellbound. It was rich descriptions of a tropical paradise where captain and crew fought pirates with pistol, sword and musket. I was captivated. I came away from the pages of that book convinced that the islands of the South Pacific were where I wanted to be, that they were the most wondrous of all the many wondrous places the world offered.
After I finished Stevenson’s book, all I could think about for days on end was growing up and seeing those islands with my own eyes. There were times when I dreamt of them every night for a week. And what great dreams they were! The deep blue waters of the Pacific. Tall ships. Lush green islands. White sand beaches. Blue lagoons. Swaying palms. Sloe-eyed native girls....
I could hardly wait!
I was a bit confused, of course. The island in Stevenson’s book is located in the Caribbean, not the South Pacific, a slight geographic error on my part — not quite halfway around the world, but close enough to make it as big as mistakes get.
It was like throwing a rock at a hill and missing.
It wasn’t all my fault, though. The back cover of the book told how Stevenson sailed the Pacific, touching at places with magical names — Tuamoto, Tahiti, Hawaii, New Zealand — and how he settled down on Samoa and spent the rest of his life writing.
How was I supposed to know he wrote “Treasure Island” in 1881, and didn’t sail to the Pacific until 1888?
What was I? An eight-year-old historian?
It didn’t help much either that the 1935 film, “Mutiny On The Bounty,” with Clark Gable and a gaggle of island girls, came to the Victory Theater down the street one Saturday afternoon. After that I was really hooked. Look out South Pacific!
Why am I telling you all this?
Did I get to some of those places? Yes.
Were they beautiful? Uh-huh.
Did I have an irresistible urge to stay there? Uh-uh.
I wasn’t eight-years-old anymore. And I wasn’t seeing those places through the eyes of a romantic writer of adventure fiction.
I was seeing them with my own eyes, ears and nose. And with my mosquito-bitten body. Stevenson forgot to mention the heat, humidity, dry rot, wet rot, green rot, gray rot, ear rot, eye rot, and very personal rot located in unmentionable places. And he left out shoes turning green overnight — every night — cockroaches the size of gunboats, and tree climbing crabs that throw coconuts at you. Not to mention wire-sized leeches that slip in through the eyelets of your boots, pig out on the juicy treats they find in there, and grow into blood-red french fries (with biting parts) by the time you struggle out of your boots at the end of a very hot, very sweaty, very itchy, and bug-rich day. He also forgot that most of that sunshine he so praised came in the form of rain.
Makes a difference, Johnny. Makes a difference.
And though I will admit that I was ready to believe all that stuff, you have to admit that neither Stevenson, nor Hollywood, nor anyone old enough to know better went to much trouble to stop all those images from forming in a dumb eight-year-old head.
Look at it this way. You take some typical (e.g.: brainless) eight-year-old, sit him down in the living room, give him a fat book to read, pat him on the head, and wander off. You know what’s right there in the first few pages, don’t you? But he doesn’t.
Do you warm him about it? No. “Read,” you say, “Read.”
So the poor kid reads along until he comes to a bunch of guys singing, “Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest. Drink and the devil had done for the rest!”
Now what’s a poor dumb kid supposed to think when he reads that? A chest? What’s that? Has he ever seen a steamer trunk? No. Does he know that it’s also referred to as a “seaman’s chest?” No.
So what picture has he got in his mind as he reads that?
Ever seen fifteen men dancing on some guy’s lungs?
No? Well the kid hasn’t seen it either, Johnny, but how is he supposed to know it isn’t just another adult ritual? Heaven knows there are a lot of them, and that one probably doesn’t seem as bizarre to him as some he may have seen if you don’t keep the bedroom door locked. So there they are, dancing away in his head.
Is it his fault? An empty head. A book full of ideas....
And as to the wide Pacific, how much did I know about world geography at age eight? Everything I could see from the top of Ward Hill — one mile of Staten Island. Plus the advanced knowledge of geography contained in one book of Chinese fairy tales.
I have a perfect defense.
I plead ignorance. And I can prove it!
And next week....