Archive for December, 2012

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In Pursuit of Red Ryder

December 26, 2012

Another Christmas has come and gone, my sixty-fourth one (but who’s counting). As has become tradition, I viewed Jean Shepherd’s now-classic A Christmas Story for the two-hundred-somethingth time (but who’s counting). I am glad for this, for both Christmas and the story of Ralphie’s quest for his perfect gift never grow old.

In real life, these perfect gifts are hard to come by. My niece, who is now twenty-two (and a big fan of A Christmas Story), recently found a Christmas list to Santa from when she was a very young girl. Beauty accessories and pets seemed to be on her little mind. She didn’t get items #1 – 4 (though she has made up for the missing “glamer gear” many times over in the intervening years), and the absence of the horse and cat eliminated the necessity for the “allergic meadicen.” I’m not sure what she actually did get, but the dog that arrived years later made up for the undelivered horse in the driveway (almost).

Emma's list

Emma’s list

I got to thinking about my own perfect gift and if I ever received it. I’m not sure if my passion for any one particular item ever rivaled Ralphie’s desire for an official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle, but there are two presents that stood out.

As a boy, I never had a dog. I liked dogs (still do) though I don’t remember pestering my parents for one, probably because I knew it would be a losing battle. Instead, one Christmas I got a large, brown stuffed pooch which I, in a fit of unbridled creativity, named Brownie. Brownie became my best friend and confidant in times of need when I got my own room. He waited for me each day nestled by the pillows on my bed, watched over me in times of illness, and participated in my many flights of fanciful make-believe throughout my boyhood. Even after I left for college, he was a welcome sight — a genuine sign of home — whenever I would return. That is until my mother unceremoniously (and without my knowledge or consent) tossed him in the trash. Otherwise, I’d probably have him still to this day (that groan was from my wife).

my Brownie Christmas

my Brownie Christmas

The other became a thread that extended through many of the Christmases of my youth: model trains. We lived near train tracks, and the sound of the late night whistle as freight trains rolled through town was a constant backdrop in my life in Bergenfield. My father’s annoyance at not having made it past before the gate fell at the New Bridge Road crossing was offset by my fascination with the huge, colorful cars that rumbled by — tankers, coal cars, livestock, equipment carriers. A train seemed to be the most powerful and majestic creation of man to this little guy.

One Christmas morning, I rushed down to our rumpus room to find a simple oval track attached to a plywood board lying there on the linoleum floor. On the track stood an eight car Lionel train set all ready to go. I could not have been more thrilled had it been one of Neill Young’s multilevel extravaganzas. Oh, to feel the ecstasy again of being that young boy manning the controls of that baby as it choo-chooed around and around, through the plastic tunnel, past the water tower, and over the trestle bridge, fake smoke billowing from the sleek black locomotive’s small stack. This is the stuff of nostalgic memory.

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As the years passed, I graduated to HO trains, and the tracks and surrounding environment became more and more complex. A small town grew up around the twists and turns of the smaller gauge track complete with a farm and its grazing livestock, a station house with working lights, and an assortment of homes and buildings. I spent hours down there on the damp floor playing with those trains, and many more planning and building the accessories. Eventually, I got older and my interests changed, and the trains went first into storage and then out of my life. Except, that is, for the memories.

These days the glory of getting Christmas presents has lost most of its luster (unless, of course, it involves witnessing children get theirs). But that, too, is as it must be. It is enough, though, to watch each year as Ralphie suffers setback after setback until he finally gets his Red Ryder. It is enough that it stirs memories of my own childhood dreams, and for that I owe eternal thanks to Jean Shepherd. So long live Christmas, and may the pursuit of children everywhere for their own perfect gift continue, for even though most years that horse won’t be left in the driveway, every so often something wonderful does arrive, and our innocent longings are indeed fulfilled.

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My Back Pages

December 2, 2012

Joe Queenan once wrote an article entitled “My 6,128 Favorite Books.” Though it has a humorous tone, at heart he is quite serious. Mr. Queenan’s number includes, as near as he can tell, all the books he has read in his life in order to make his point, so clearly they are not actually all his favorites. However, simply put, he loves books, not the new electronic kind, but, in his words, “Books that we can touch; books that we can smell; books that we can depend on.” And yes, in spite of the onslaught of technology, books remain important to many. I proudly include myself among that group.

I began thinking about my own reading history and which books have a special place in my heart. Some of them would be on my “favorite book” list because of the impact they had on me intellectually, emotionally, or spiritually. Others would be included for sentimental reasons caused by the time in my life that I read them or the person who introduced them to me. And virtually all of them can still be found sitting on my bookshelves.

As is probably true for most who share this affinity, my love of books began as a child. My mother read to me. My teachers in those critical early years of school read to me. As soon as I could manage it, I read myself. Oh, those picture books of childhood! Curious George and Babar and of course Dr. Seuss. And who can forget those Golden Books?

My mother worked in the 1950’s as a home typist for a publishing house called Parents’ Magazine which was a subsidiary of Doubleday & Company, so we possessed and continuously immersed ourselves in the likes of Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling and Tales From Grimm. I still have them, as I do a ragged and lovingly worn copy of Winnie the Pooh. I also have a few mainstays of my later childhood library with their brittle yellowed pages and fraying covers: Black Beauty, Hans Brinker, and one of my absolute favorites, Robinson Crusoe. I can still remember sitting by myself, curled up on a chair in the living room in the semi-darkness with this adventure, my imagination racing as I walked the isolated beach alongside Robinson.

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Once I got into my grammar school years, my passion for reading grew even stronger. The problem was that I never read what I was supposed to be reading.  I would have my own material tucked inside the school book as the class worked on who-knows-what. I don’t recall exactly what I read, but it seemed at the time to be far more rewarding than the assigned work. Looking back after I became a teacher myself, I realize how transparent a ruse that must have been, but most of my teachers left me alone to wander along my own path, and I thank them for that.

Why each of us is drawn to certain books and not others (in spite of the often overzealous urging of friends or teachers) is not always explicable or predictable. Some stories speak to us, while others simply do not. Many a recommendation by others has left me bewildered; some have left me in awe and filled with gratitude. I’m quite sure the same can be said of my own suggestions.

And why we choose to keep these books after having read them may seem even less rational. But keep them we do. In my collection are many of the books that were milestones in my personal literary journey. Primary amongst these is an oddly shaped paperback copy (for seventy-five cents!) of John Barth’s The Floating Opera, the story of a man deciding not to commit suicide. It compelled me to think through my assumptions about life, a startling byproduct of “merely” reading. For many years I considered this the most important thing I had read.

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Keeping  J. D. Salinger’s Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Franny and Zooey on my bookshelf is essential to my well-being. I never fail to be moved by this author and have been since first being captivated by Catcher in the Rye when I read it as a student. Antoine Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany and Yan Martel’s Life of Pi are other prime examples of this. It is stories like these as well as others in my pantheon such as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle that I didn’t want to end and now don’t want to be without.

So what is this strange attraction to the books themselves? After all, they take up space and show their age as time passes (especially if that time is measured in decades). But these supposedly near-obsolete objects embody much beyond the contents within them. They are artifacts of our lives, small pieces of our personal history and growth manifest in paper and binding. When I pick up my old copy of The Floating Opera or Franny and Zooey, it brings me back to the time and place I first read it. I understand that this may render me terminally old-fashioned, but I’ll bet there are more than a just a few others that feel the same. Just take a look around your own house. Perhaps you are one of us, too.