Monday, October 16, 2017

Library Days: The Boy of Summers

I recall the summers of my 11th and 12th year as both my actual initiation into the joys of reading books, and in some ways, the purest and most perfect experiences of them, due largely to the revelations of discovery, the awakening, shimmering clarity of the first time.

 Between baseball, bike trips, paper routes and Saturday afternoons at the movies in those hot golden months in western Pennsylvania, my visits to the Greensburg Public Library on Main Street became more frequent and regular. There I searched and settled on my three allotted volumes, which most times I would easily finish within my two-week limit.

 I read outside, including with my back against a huge rock that I discovered in a nearby hillside vacant lot of scattered trees and bushes, my fortress of solitude. I read sprawled on the sofa in the living room, the curtains drawn against the afternoon heat, Italian style. I read in my bedroom, on my double bed or in it, within the umbra of my bedside lamp.

 I read sipping Kool-Aid, munching an apple or pear, or with a stack of saltines nearby, with butter or peanut butter between two crackers. I read restlessly and with total absorption, until I got restless again, forcing me reluctantly out of my reading dream.

My choice of reading wasn't at all precocious. I've noted the Hardy Boys novels. I also read sports books, both fiction and biographies. I was beginning to notice the author's name on a book I liked, and to look for other books they wrote. I read The Kid Comes Back, a baseball story by John R. Tunis, and I remembered his name and found other sports fictions he wrote, like Young Razzle and Go, Team, Go!

 Sports books were a staple of fiction for boys--a cache of my uncle's books I discovered in my grandmother's attic had several from his childhood. John R. Tunis was perhaps a more serious writer than most. The Kid Comes Back was a sequel to The Kid From Tomkinsville, about a rookie with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Published in 1946, it begins with the hero, Roy Tucker, in France during World War II. Like a number of Major League players, his career was interrupted by service overseas. There are thoughtful reflections on regrets for not taking better advantage of school for knowledge that would be an advantage to their survival.

Tucker is injured, and once the novel returns to baseball, it is about his struggle to overcome his injury and war experiences, and find a role as an older player, which is to support the team first. The baseball sections are detailed, with managerial strategy and game descriptions--just what we wanted at that age, as we were learning the game from radio broadcasts and--if we were lucky enough to run into knowledgeable adults--from coaches and baseball dads.

 Tunis is considered the father of modern sports books, and Roy Tucker is an obvious forerunner for Roy Hobbs in Malamud's The Natural. His young football hero in All American battles anti-Semitism and racial discrimination. Tunis also wrote on other subjects in his books for young readers. His last book in the 1960s, His Enemy, His Friend, is a poignant and eloquent novel exposing the brutalization of war, centered on the retreat from Dunkirk. In the adult world Tunis was a sports commentator and writer who could be a harsh critic of, for example, the role of money in college football.

Joe Archibald is another author's name I remembered, though I'm not sure which of his scores of sports books I read--probably novels about football and baseball. Archibald wrote fiction and sport biographies, and I also read those. One of the bios I remember (not Archibald's work, I don't think) was about Jackie Robinson (the first African American player in the majors and one of baseball's great all-time star), which opened with him at a young age trying to scratch his black skin off his arm, because of the prejudice he experienced. It was a powerful image and message. 

I read adventure stories about sailing ships and pirates, possibly under the influence of TV's "The Buccaneers" (another syndicated series imported from England and largely written by blacklisted American writers) as well as the Disney movie of Treasure Island, at least as excerpted on the Disneyland TV show.

 Though I don't remember any specifically, I may have actually read some Robert Louis Stevenson, but all I recall is that I came up against my limit in reading one of these books about seafaring--it was too long and too hard to follow. (It might have been one I secreted from the adult stacks.) But eventually I would return to such tales: a paperback of Conrad's Lord Jim was one of the books I took with me to college.

I was actually much more interested in modern stories about ships and the Navy. I particularly liked Midshipman Lee of the Naval Academy by Annapolis grad Robb White. I'm pretty sure I'd already read it when I first saw a TV series called "Men of Annapolis" (it began in 1957 and ran for only one season)-- Robb White was one of its writers. There was also a West Point Story TV series at the time, which I watched, and I found novels about West Point, too.

 I got so enthusiastic I decided that when I was college age I would try to get into the Naval Academy. I would need to be appointed by our congressman, but my father used to see him at Democratic gatherings, and I'd already corresponded with him, so I thought I had a good chance. I held onto that dream until one day, descending from my house to the road, I suddenly realized that being deaf in one ear would disqualify me.

But before that terminal thought, I actually did go to the Naval Academy. During my 11th summer I spent several weeks at my cousins on the eastern shore of Maryland, and when my parents drove down to pick me up, we detoured to Annapolis for a quick drive through the Academy grounds, pausing long enough for me to hop out and have my picture taken.

 Something else happened on that trip. As we were piling into the Ford to leave Federalsburg, my Aunt Toni produced a tin of her homemade cookies and a cardboard box of old science fiction magazines which I assume had belonged to my Uncle Bill. These were the classic s/f pulps with boldly colored art on the covers, containing mostly short stories. It was a long drive, and I spent it in the back seat, reading story after story while munching chocolate chip cookies, nut rolls and jumbalones in the speeding summer light.

American science fiction was largely that--short stories published in the pulps, and it had been that way since the 1920s. The relatively few science fiction novels were usually cheap paperbacks. This was still a pulp genre.

 But in the 1950s, several publishers started a science fiction novel series for young readers--especially baby boomers like me, because there were a lot of us. Alice May Norton (under the name "Andre Norton") wrote them for Ace books--I don't remember seeing these.  However, I do remember the other two.

Beginning in 1947, Robert Heinlein wrote a series of a dozen "juveniles" for Scribners. For some reason--possibly because he published short stories in Boys Life--I recognized Heinlein's name early, probably the first science fiction writer's name I knew. Or maybe I learned to recognize his name from this series.

They were published in hardback, expressly for libraries, and their success helped jumpstart hardback science fiction novels for adults. Among the differences between his adult and juvenile fiction, Heinlein said, was that "the books for boys are somewhat harder to read because younger readers relish tough ideas they have to chew and don't mind big words..." In fact, these novels track well with the universe Heinlein created in his work for adults.

The most famous of his series was Space Cadet, a major influence on Gene Roddenberry and Star Trek, as well as inspiring the early TV series "Tom Corbett, Space Cadet" and several other such TV shows that featured variations on the Space Patrol.

 The last in the Heinlein series in 1958 (Have Space Suit--Will Travel) has a lot of technical detail on space suits which didn't yet exist, partly because as a Navy engineer in World War II Heinlein had been tasked to design a space suit (or more specifically a high altitude pressure suit), a job he passed on to another officer who would also become a prominent science fiction writer. The whole idea of the space suit began in science fiction, as did so much of early space technology.

The titles I was most likely to have seen in these years were Citizen of the Galaxy and Time for the Stars, though I have a feeling I read Starman Jones.   Tunnel in the Sky (1955) depicted a group of young people marooned on a hostile wilderness planet who split into rival groups but ultimately realize they need to all cooperate to survive.  Science fiction historian H. Bruce Franklin believes it was Heinlein's reply to William Golding's famous Lord of the Flies, published the year before.

But I don't really remember which of this series I read back then, and probably never will, because about four years ago I tracked them all down (some I had, some were actually in the university library's children's room in their original editions, and some were available to buy in quality paperback collections) and read them in order of composition. They are all excellent. I wrote about them individually here.

 Apart from the quality of storytelling and sophisticated scientific detail, they engage moral and ethical questions, and expose various forms of racism and prejudice, as well as authoritarian (and big business) excesses.

The juveniles I remember mostly vividly and even reverently were in the Winston Science Fiction series. These were written by different authors including Arthur C. Clarke, Ben Bova, Raymond F. Jones, and several (as many as 9 of the 35) by Lester Del Rey. This series (and the other two) "seem to have started a whole generation toward becoming science fiction fans," Del Rey wrote in 1979. "People still come up to me to declare that one of my juveniles was the first science fiction book they ever read."

 Again, I don't remember which I read, though I'm fairly sure they included Trouble on Titan by Alan E. Nourse, Rocket to Luna by Robert Marsten (one of crime novelist Ed McBain's several pseudonyms) and Son of the Stars by Raymond F. Jones (who authored This Island Earth, which was freely adapted into the script for one of the better 50s sci-fi films.)

A number of these novels were reprinted in paperback editions by Thunderchild Publishing. These have the virtue of the original cover illustrations but lack the wraparound endpages and the heft of the original. One (The Secret of the Ninth Planet by Donald Wollheim) includes a marginally informative but ultimately unsatisfying essay on the history of the series. Original editions with pristine dust jackets are collector's items, but some old hardback library copies are around, and carry more resonance for me.

The Winston series was unified by a distinctive logo and especially the eerie endpapers which were the same for every book. The cover art was distinctive, too, but I never saw it on my public library copies. But those endpaper illustrations inside the front and back were in every volume, and more than any single book, I remember poring over this art, trying to imagine a tale that would unite them into a single story.

I wouldn't have seen or read these books but for the public library. (Some cheap editions of Robb White's work were available through schools, though I don't believe they were in mine. Also, I'm not aware that any of my schools had libraries until high school, and that was a small one I hardly ever used.)

 None of these are classic authors or books, though I suspect many baby boomers remember them fondly. Their techniques and rhythms prepared me for other literature, I believe, but I still find value in them on their own. I have copies of many of them today, and have read them in recent years.

 That they reawaken and renew the boy that remains an integral part of me is only one of their functions. For I read them again with calm pleasure and active delight, as well as the thrill of re-discovery.

This is one of a series of posts on childhood reading and the origins of my relationships with books, inspired by Larry McMurtry's reflections in his autobiographical Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen. Earlier posts are on the Book House books, Library Days and the Hardy Boys.

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