The highest aspiration of my childhood was to be a cowboy. When that didn’t work out, I wanted to be an FBI agent. That definitely didn’t work out.
I wouldn’t have survived FBI training. I could’ve never done the obstacle course at Quantico where they make you climb a rope without knots. I couldn’t even climb the rope in gym class.
Kids today might not remember the dreaded rope in P.E. But there was a time in public schools when we had to scale a fifty-foot rope dangling above a concrete floor. It was dangerous. If your arms wore out at the top, you fell and died.
But that was school, and we didn’t complain because it was better than the uphill walk home.
Anyway, when my FBI career didn’t seem feasible, I decided I wanted to be a novelist. I was in fifth grade when I made the decision to be a maker of books. It all happened because of my big fat mouth.
Let me explain:
My father was an avid reader, so was my mother. During one particular supper my parents discussed a book entitled: Chesapeake. By James A. Michener. They were crazy about this book. They worshiped this book. They would have eaten this book for supper if there had been enough ketchup. It was all they talked about.
When I tried to tell my mother about falling off the rope in gym class, my mother shushed me and talked about James Michener.
Naturally, I became curious about this Michener. One afternoon, I snuck into my father’s room. Beside his bed sat a book the size of a cinder block—only heavier.
I finished one paragraph and proclaimed it the worst book ever. I’d seen refrigerator manuals more entertaining.
But my father caught me reading it. When he saw me, he smiled.
“Are you ACTUALLY reading that book?” he said. “Ain’t it a little grown-up for you?”
Because I did not want to disappoint him, I answered, “Are you kidding? This is the best book I ever read.”
My father was beaming.
“Well you oughta read it,” he said. “Since you like it so much.”
Me and my fat mouth.
The hardback edition of Chesapeake is eight hundred and sixty-five pages. The tale begins in the 1500’s and spans into the 1970’s. It covers almost five hundred years, and the story moves about as slow as dial-up internet.
At first, I only pretended to read it. But when my parents started asking questions I was busted.
“Are you sure you’ve been reading it?” my father would say. “You know, I’ll understand if it’s too advanced for you.”
“Advanced?” I would laugh. “I only wish this book had bigger words.”
“But of course, Father.”
“Do you even know what a Chesapeake is?”
“Sure, Billy Roberson’s mom drives a brand new one.”
So there was no way out of it. I opened the book one fateful Saturday and forced myself to begin reading it. The book contained words so big they had warning labels. After one chapter, my brain hurt.
That night my father asked questions, and I was ready. I spoke with authority about Chesapeake. And I saw a little more pride on his face.
I did not impress my father often. He was a steelworker, an athlete, and a workaholic. He could build anything, remember anything, do anything, or fix anything.
Me? I was a chubby disappointment on the baseball field. Also, I made terrible grades, and I could sleep for eleven hours without turning onto my side.
But my brain impressed him. And you have to work with what you’ve got.
Thus, I read the next chapter, which took nearly fourteen years. Then the next chapter. And the next. Soon, I was able to understand the elaborate sentences old Mich was using.
He used big words like “munificent,” and “loquacious.” I would mark them with a highlighter to remind myself how much I hate big words.
Then something happened. Halfway into the novel, I began to love it. Each evening, I would find myself lost on the banks of the gracious Chesapeake. And I sort of fell in love with words.
When I finally finished the book, my father fuzzed my hair and said,—and this is something that will stick with me— “I’m proud of you.”
Today, I saw that tattered book on my shelf. I’ve had it nearly thirty years, I will probably never read it again. Below it sits another book. A novel with my name on the spine.
My father’s been gone a lifetime, but you can’t kill words. Not words printed in a book, nor the four tiny words he once said to me.
There are some things time will never let you forget. Like people who loved you. And books that become old friends.
And the god-awful rope in gym class.