My love of books and writing developed as slowly and subtly as my love of the Southwest.
Like many a five-year-old in 1955, I had a collection of Little Golden Books, the popular series of children’s tomes. I liked the stories they told; I liked even more their generous and colorful illustrations. One of my favorites of this series was 1946’s The Taxi That Hurried. (“We’re a speedy pair,” the taxi’s driver assured his fares. “We’ll get you there.”) I loved Catherine Danner’s Buster Bulldozer, issued by Tell-a-Tale Books in 1952.
However, my interest in books slowed to nearly a standstill during my late childhood and remained that way into my early adolescence. The reason? Television, of course. We had a television in our 50’s New Jersey house as far back as I can remember. This medium so seduced me that on Saturday mornings I willingly sat through at least some of the 30 minutes of WRCA’s The Modern Farmer, at the time a weekly glimpse at our nation’s agricultural practices, in order not to miss a single minute of kiddie impresario Herb Sheldon’s show at 8 AM. (I assure you, beyond eating fresh Garden State fruits and vegetables, my family was not into farming.) Add to this show Sheena: Queen of the Jungle, Hopalong Cassidy, Lassie, Andy’s Gang, Roy Rogers, The Mickey Mouse Club, Howdy Doody, Annie Oakley, The Cisco Kid, countless Paul Terry cartoons, hundreds of commercials . . . and a tender young mind was now nearly closed to the written word. Yet, my parents, in wistful hope, gave me James Otis Kaler’s popular 1881 children’s novel Toby Tyler; or Ten Weeks with a Circus. I opened it once or twice and then proceeded to ignore it: no way was I going to read a book that thick.
In my early adolescence, my father, likely in desperation, offered to pay me to read a book on one of our shelves, a favorite of his when he was a lad: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I slogged through its first 20 pages. What, I wondered, did I have in common with this dumb, ragged kid who lived on the banks of the Mississippi in the previous century? The narrator, Huck himself, couldn’t write―that much my TV-enfeebled brain did realize―and his older “Negro” friend’s speech was an utter chore to understand. I was, however, fascinated with E.W. Kemble’s illustrations for the novel, especially the one with the caption “GIMME A CHAW.”, which depicted one yokel transacting with another for a plug of chewing tobacco. I related to it because, unbeknownst to Mom and Dad, I, too, was just learning to enjoy tobacco―in my case, the kind that was smoked. I skimmed through the remainder of the novel and guiltily pocketed the $10 bill from my father, grateful he didn’t require me to provide a “book report” on my literary venture.
No, I didn’t like to read much as a kid, but, strangely perhaps, I did like to write. The enjoyment I took in writing possibly began with a device commonly used to produce it. As a toddler, I loved playing with my grandparents’ 1920’s Corona typewriter. Of course, my initial attraction to it was purely of the physical/sensual/motor nature. Like any child, I loved using my hands and fingers to strike things―in this case, keys and a space bar―and make noise in the process. However, at some point, someone fed a sheet of white paper into the Corona, I resumed randomly striking the silvery keys, and then must have paused to marvel at the little black figures I had magically created on the paper. Gradually I realized this machine’s wonderful capabilities. I learned how to make not only a progression of “little” letters, but also, by pushing the “CAP” key, “big” letters, as well. Further manipulation of the machine showed me how I could make―Wow!―colored letters by accessing the red striping on the machine’s two-tone ribbon. Eventually I was playing with the Corona nearly every time I visited my grandparents, the machine vying with my grandfather’s Schick electric razor, humming against my tender facial skin, for my attention. Before long, I was practicing typing a specific sentence―meaningless, as far as I was concerned―my grandparents had handprinted for me on a scrap of paper: “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.” In time, I assumed that, because the words I created on the typewriter looked very much like the “important” words in, among other things, a newspaper, my words must be of equal importance, and I was thus spurred to type more and more.
Eventually, the typewriter migrated to our house in New Jersey, and one day I began to use it to produce my regular “newspaper”―a brief narrative of my daily activities. On small slips of paper, I pounded out several identical copies―with “headlines” in red―to make sure that every family member had an “edition” of my paper. Then I placed the editions in the lid of a shoebox taped on my bedroom door for “circulation” in our household.
Soon I began to dabble in fiction on the Corona. I typed a narrative about one “Mick Sales,” a basketball player like myself, who, at the buzzer of a crucial game, made the winning two-pointer. I titled the story “The Rim Told the Tale,” rather proud of my little alliterative touch. Shortly after discovering, at age 11, popular music on the radio, I became obsessed with the “top-10” rock and roll songs as reported by the New York City radio stations. I listened faithfully to the radio, enthralled by this newly-discovered music, and weekly provided typed copies of this dramatically fluctuating “hit parade” for my friends.
Meanwhile, however, as I’ve said, a lack of enthusiasm for books continued into my early adolescence. Those I did read were the ones assigned by my high school, and reading them was a chore. As with Huck, what, I wondered, did I have in common with the characters in To Kill a Mockingbird, Shane, The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Gatsby, The Ox-Bow Incident, The Good Earth, and The Member of the Wedding? (And how could any reading compete with listening and moving to the sounds of that gang of sullen, surly, cigarette-smoking guys from England who performed that cool “Negro” music and were called The Rolling Stones?)