creative non fiction, Desert, memoir, new mexico, southwest

Reading and Writing

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.  More, I liked their generous and colorful illustrations.  One of my favorite stories of the 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, published 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 1950’s New Jersey split-level 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 timea weekly glimpse at our nation’s agricultural practices, in order not to miss a single minute of kiddie impresario Herb Sheldon’s show at 8:00 AM.  (Beyond a crabapple tree and an occasional patch of tomato plants on our quarter-acre suburban property, my family had never farmed.)  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, Queen for a Day, countless Paul Terry cartoons, hundreds of commercials . . . and a tender, young, pliant 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, do 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 is 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 at their home in Port Chester, New York.  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. 

Soon, 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 tapped 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 suspensefully announced 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, 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 drudgery.  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, cigarette-smoking guys from England who performed that cool “Negro” music and were called The Rolling Stones? 

Writing, too, suffered at the hands of rock and roll.  Yet I eventually returned to it as a high school junior, enrolling in a creative writing course.  I wrote short stories, some firmly based upon events in my own life and the lives of people I knew, others purely products of my imagination.  Setting was extremely important to me, because I wrote not only to attempt to develop and reveal character, but to escape the drabness, overcrowding, and raw winters of New Jersey.  I loved the sunshine and warmth of the southeastern United States, where I had relatives and to which I occasionally traveled as a boy.  Thus, I set one short story in rural Georgia and a story and play in Florida.  (Today, still, I write mainly to revisit, not to discover.)    

Much of my writing at this time, like that of most adolescents initially plumbing their creativity, was florid, overblown, dreadful.  I was discovering and gorging on the great number and variety of words in the English language, aided and abetted by that thing called a “thesaurus.”  Thus, it wasn’t a “snowy” day I was offering in a story; it was a “niveous” day, a day of “albinism.”  Such ludicrous touches, I was certain, made my writing unique.  And similes I loved, to the point of blind foolishness.  For example, I thought I was actually rendering attractive and sexy a teenage girl, actually writing in the erotic tradition of Candy (the dirty-book parody that circulated under our high school desks one year), when I wrote of her: “She had buttocks like two halved basketballs.”  (Honest, it stirred my loins every time I read it.  However, “This is gross!” remarked Miss Franklin, my creative writing teacher, in the margin of my manuscript after she read it.)   

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