Tomorrow is the birthday of a friend. He looks pretty good for his age. He’ll be turning 187. Which makes him almost as old as Willie Nelson.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born in Florida, Missouri, in 1835. It was late November, and colder than a witch’s underwire. His mother was not expecting him. She wasn’t even close to being ready, so she tried to squeeze him back in. But it didn’t work. So out he came.
During childlabor, Halley’s comet was passing overhead, visible from the sky. The comet was a natural phenomenon that frightened a lot of people, causing many to either pray in tongues or drink whiskey. Sam’s mother did both during childbirth.
No, not really. I’m only kidding. Although, she had reason to drink. Because Sam was a lot of trouble.
For one thing, he was sickly. Nobody thought he would make it past infancy. Three of his siblings died. Being born premature in 1830s was no cakewalk. His body was puny. His complexion made Elmer’s glue look colorful.
“When I first saw him, I could see no promise in him,” his mother recalled.
Even so, he was whip smart. Lightning in a jar. He could memorize things. He and he could talk the paint off a wagon wheel. And lie. Hoo boy.
Sam could lie like it was his profession. The kid was such a good liar, he received annual Christmas cards from Satan.
He got into trouble, of course. The best humans always do. Nobody changes the world by being well-behaved. History doesn’t care if you were president of your chess club or class treasurer. History favors the kids who lived in detention.
Sam was that kid. He started smoking when he was still in elementary school. He could out-cuss a grown man before he was potty trained. He skipped school so often that his teachers sent flowers to his mother and asked when the funeral was.
He did his growing up in Hannibal, Missouri. He spent his idle hours beside the Mississippi, raising cane, catching catfish, and just generally acting like a little hellion. Contrary to popular belief, his highest aspiration was not to be a writer of books. He wanted to be something else.
“When I was a boy, there was but one permanent ambition among my comrades in our village on the west bank of the Mississippi River. That was, to be a steamboatman.”
He apprenticed as a steamboat pilot at age 22. Then he became a captain. He learned every twist and bend of the river. Every submerged log, every snag, every sandbar, and most importantly, where the best liquor could be purchased.
“Too much of anything is bad,” he once said. “But too much good whiskey is barely enough.”
I never met him, of course. But I’ve visited both Hannibal, and Florida, Missouri. I’ve seen his old haunts. I’ve seen the whitewashed fences. I’ve toured the museum. I even bought a $4.99 corncob pipe to wedge between my teeth while I took a $120 riverboat ride.
I leaned over the stanchions of the vessel, looking into the blackwater, thinking about the first introduction I had to my friend Sam.
I was a kid. My father was freshly dead. I was aimless, lost without a cause. I had dropped out of school. I had ugly red hair. Freckles. I had two ears that looked like a truck going down the street with both doors open. I was hideous and chubby.
It was during this period I first opened the book “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” It was maybe the first time I had laughed in almost two years. Something about Sam’s writing moved me.
Throughout my life, I would consult his books over and again. When I finally decided to complete my high-school equivalency as an adult, I would attend night school and read “Innocents Abroad,” between classes.
After I graduated, I would travel to visit Sam’s birthplace and his childhood home. I would pay overpriced fees to be entertained on a riverboat cruise by a Samuel Clemens impersonator in a white wig who totally sucked. But it didn’t matter. I was in Sam’s hometown, and that was enough.
These trips would motivate me to start working on my first novel. I would eventually become a writer. Although not a good one.
And just yesterday, when the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, contacted me and asked me to deliver a speech at the Samuel Clemens’ home, I almost wet my proverbial pants. Because, you see, I owe a lot to this guy. I suppose I just wanted to wish him a happy birthday and tell him:
“I’ll see you soon, Sam.”