I finished one paragraph and proclaimed it the worst book ever. I’ve seen refrigerator manuals more entertaining.

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.”

“You do?”

“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.

31 comments

  1. GaryD - May 14, 2019 8:45 am

    Fifth grade, Mrs. Melvin, teacher. We drew names for our Christmas gift exchange. I don’t remember the gift I brought but I remember the gift I received. A book. A stinking BOOK! All the kids laughed. Who gives a stinking book as a gift? The dreaded book was a hardback book of”Tom Sawyer”. That book sat in my bedroom until the following summer. One day out of sheer boredom I started reading. Chapter One. Then Chapter Two. Before I knew it I had read the whole book. Then I read it again. And again. And a few more times. This began my love of reading. That book is long gone now but it turned out to be one of my favorite gifts to this day. I wished I remembered who bought it for me. I would thank them at least a million times.

    Reply
  2. Donna Harvey - May 14, 2019 8:55 am

    You brought back memories, Sean. You could have ripped a page out of my life’s story! I too had to scale Rope of Death!
    I was the smallest girl in my gym class. My gym teacher was a mousey little woman, who usually wanted us to play volleyball. I was too short for that game. I rarely got my hands on the ball!
    That day, to my surprises, she announced that we had to climb the death rope to the top, something about the state required it. (Can you imagine the kids of today doing such a thing?)
    Well, anyway, this was my chance to shine! I would climb that rope to the top!
    I let all the other girls take their turn. I just stood in the background, itching to get my hands on that rope.
    The last girl took her turn, a couple feet off the ground, she wined, it’s hurts my hand.
    It was finally my turn. I’d show them! Suddenly the buzzer sounded, oh no!!! It was the end of class; I didn’t get my turn; it couldn’t be!
    Teacher told us to pick up our stuff and head to the lockers. They all started to walk off, but not me, I was going to climb!
    I still remember her yell as she turned around and saw me at the top of the ceiling. My proudest moment! The yell brought the boys running from behind the curtain that separated the boys and girls.
    All the girls turned around and stared, the teacher was at the foot of the rope holding it and calmly saying climb down slowly.
    Well, me being me, hurried down that thick rope like it was nothing!
    My moment of glory, the boys had all gathered around, congratulating me, meanwhile the girls walked off to the locker room.saying something like, she should have been a boy!
    And the teacher wasn’t so mousey after all. She yelled get dressed, were going to the principal’s office.
    Principal Bradow looked up from his desk and saw it was me, he said come in and close the door.
    We exchanged pleasantries, talked a bit about what was going on in school. He said I’ll see you later. (I was one of the kids who helped out in his office on my study hall.)
    I got up to go to class. He said, Did you really climb all the way to the top? I actually heard him mutter, Damm!
    I smiled as I walked out, looked back and said, See you later, Mr. Btadow!
    Oh, by the way, Sean, I don’t think I’ll be reading the book Chesapeake; I don’t think I could pick it up!
    Love your stories, keep up the good work!

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  3. Cathi Russell - May 14, 2019 9:15 am

    My book that I attempted & conquered was “Trinity” by Leon Uris. It was just after graduation from AUBURN, I had a raging case of mono so I was forbidden to do anything but rest, read & take vitamin C until I had to move into the bathroom. I made it my mission to read stuff I should read but hadn’t gotten around to. “Trinity” was my white whale…and I loved it. I attempted “War & Peace” but it sent me into a coma & I cried uncle. Funny what you remember. Thanks for jogging my memory, Sean!

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    • Nancy shields - May 14, 2019 11:24 am

      Trinity was a favorite of mine, too. I should read it again now that I’ve been to Ireland and love the people. Thank you !!!

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  4. Kelly C - May 14, 2019 10:07 am

    I fell in love with reading when I became friends with a family that had every copy of The Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew mysteries. I read every one and have never looked back! Reading has taught me so much and taken me to many wonderful places – always have a book going! In fact, was at my local library last night! Happy to say that it was full of people!

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  5. Elizabeth - May 14, 2019 10:31 am

    Thank you for reminding me! Pretty sure many of the books I read as a kid was in order to impress my parents and to have somethingto talk to them about, anything by leon uris, war and peace, anything michener, dr. Zhivago (talk about words), Yeager.

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  6. Nancy shields - May 14, 2019 11:29 am

    If Only all fifth graders had your experience with a book. Such a magical experience.

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  7. Joe Patterson - May 14, 2019 11:38 am

    Thanks again

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  8. Connie Havard Ryland - May 14, 2019 12:38 pm

    I have a lifelong love of books. They were escape from a life that I can’t and don’t talk about. They were my chance to travel, explore, learn…I tell all kids everywhere that you can learn anything you want from a book. The school library was my happy place. I’ve read everything I could get my hands on all my life and average about 4 books a week still. I read the “classics” when I was young and cared about what people thought I should read. Now I read novels about people. I read spy books and mystery books. Fantasy and science fiction. Anything except romances. They are not my thing. And I read your books. I own 4 of them. It’s lovely to meet someone else with a passion for words. Thanks for the memory this morning.

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  9. Debbie - May 14, 2019 1:46 pm

    This retired school librarian thanks you!\

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  10. Bobby - May 14, 2019 1:48 pm

    The FBI would have been fortunate to have you amongst their ranks, but your compassion for the downtrodden might have been a detriment. 😊I’m a retired FBI agent who wanted to be a movie star.

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    • Caleb Halstead - June 13, 2019 4:13 pm

      Ha! Never knew that, Bobby! 🙂

      Reply
  11. Teresa Burke - May 14, 2019 1:48 pm

    Like your Mom & Dad, I loved Chesapeake and have read every James Michener book he ever wrote. Both my parents read all the time, even in bed (with the door closed, so we 5 kids thought they were doing something else – ha!) Dad always read fiction, and Mom always read nonfiction – so I guess they missed out on some great discussions with each other! I look forward to reading your stories when I open my email each morning. I always wanted to write, and can write ok, grammatically, but don’t have a creative flair at all!! I love how you can take a single experience and make such a wonderful memory and often a great lesson!

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  12. Nancy - May 14, 2019 1:49 pm

    Michener was a favorite of mine, too! I have always loved reading, and P.E was my least favorite class. We did not have the dreaded rope, but the gym suits were particularly horrible on chubby girls like me. Awful! In the early sixties we could not wear shorts and a T-shirt. It had to bee the ugly gym suit!

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  13. Dianne - May 14, 2019 1:50 pm

    My mother was a huge James Michener fan and would buy his books as soon as they came out. I thank my mother for giving me the love of books and reading. She always told me that nothing grows your imagination like reading. In the 9th grade I was at home with the flu, and she brought me her copy of Gone With The Wind, which I read that week, and I’ve never been without a novel beside my bed since.

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  14. Shelton A. - May 14, 2019 1:52 pm

    Good books are one of the things that make life worth living. I’m proud of a 14 year old who took on Chesapeake. My dad read lots of Michner’s books, all of which I found too boring (and I was then, like I am now, a voracious reader) and too long. Way to go, Sean. Your dad was right to be proud of you.

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  15. Glenn - May 14, 2019 2:05 pm

    I pre-ordered your novel, look forward to reading it. Based on your “critics” I’m considering counting the commas :-). I read well passed my grade level starting in second grade and have been reading books (now on Kindle) including Chesapeake and every other Michener book. I start my day with your column and I’m happy you’ve achieved your real life goal – entertainer of people…

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  16. Mary T. - May 14, 2019 2:21 pm

    My first “grown up”” books were Tender Victory by Taylor Caldwell and The Good Earth by Pearl Buck. They both remain favorites of mine!

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  17. Donna Manchester Korbe - May 14, 2019 2:22 pm

    Haven’t told you for a while how great you are!
    But you are, and I love you!❤

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  18. Bobbie - May 14, 2019 2:33 pm

    I so look forward to your posts each morning Sean. I too am a lover of words, English being my fave subject in school. Thank goodness, waaaay back then, they didn’t have ropes, at least not for girls. You have a unique way of making a point, yet telling the story with humor, sometimes mingled with tears. I am proud of you too Sean. Your dad was tough on you, but had he not been, you may never have become a writer, plus have so much positive influence on your readers.
    We have something else in common….I grew up watching western movies, Hopalong, Roy and Dale, Gene Autry….I wanted to be a cowgirl. Was going to have a horse ranch out West…live the dream. Altho that didn’t happen, I’ve been blessed with a good life…and still love horses and cowboys.
    Thank you for the smiles and your stories. You are a blessing.

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  19. Judy Holdren Beaver - May 14, 2019 3:22 pm

    My son has one of those ropes in his living room. Vaulted ceiling was just the tight height. No knots.

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  20. Linda Moon - May 14, 2019 3:43 pm

    The smartest classmate of mine in Miss McInnis’s 6th grade read WAR AND PEACE. Not be be outdone, I finally read it…after I finished raising kids and retired from teaching. Even then, after all that time, I thought how could a 6th-grader have possibly accomplished this? That book is now one of my many old friends. I am proud of you, Sean!

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  21. Edna B. - May 14, 2019 4:58 pm

    Oh yes, I remember that rope! I never could get up it, although I tried my best. However, I did fall in love with books. As a young girl, I think I read every book that our branch library had. I still love books. You have a wonderful day, hugs, Edna B.

    Reply
  22. Robert Chiles - May 14, 2019 6:56 pm

    For me, it wasn’t a rope, it was the pool. I couldn’t graduate from college unless I could swim; and I couldn’t. Test day- everyone had to jump into the pool and then swim to the side. Must’ve been 30 people there. I waited till last. So I jumped in. It was like throwing a bowling ball into the pool. I went straight to the bottom and sat there waving up at everyone. After about 30 seconds, the teacher figured out I wasn’t coming up, so she jumped in and dragged me out by the hair. Somehow I managed to pass- but it wasn’t easy.

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  23. Myra G. - May 14, 2019 7:47 pm

    I excelled at being LAST in whatever our gym teacher threw our way … except the rope. For one brief shining moment, I nailed that beast.
    No, you can’t kill words. I’m so looking forward to reading your novel!

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  24. Nell Thomas - May 14, 2019 8:35 pm

    Enjoyed the story!
    I never enjoyed reading. Reading assignments for school were torment. I much rather be outside catching insects or playing country j. Still to this day, even though I was accepted as a member of a book club, I have a problem sitting down and reading a book. Occassionally- a number one best selling-???? will get hold my attention long enough to reach the last page. Many in the group are retired English teachers. They not only tear up the” book of the month ” but dozens more they have read recently. My question is- where do they find the time? Who does the chores? But I do love to write- especially replies to your stories which are short, sweet, to the point and quite often hits home.

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  25. rondatedder - May 15, 2019 1:13 am

    Wonderful story Sean!

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  26. Jack Darnell - May 15, 2019 2:23 am

    Other than a few westerns I read waiting in the chow line I never read a real book that did not have to do with my work, until mid 50s. I was on a mission in court thousands of miles away and on a whim bought a hard back of Clancy’s executive orders figuring months to read it and pass the time.. I did it in a week. I was hooked. Since then I have read thousands and written 11.
    I enjoy your writing and only believe ‘some’ of the self putdowns (smile), but I do understand some of them.
    From me’n her,
    Sherry & jack.

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  27. Charaleen Wright - May 15, 2019 5:10 am

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  28. Clark Hining - May 15, 2019 10:31 pm

    After high school, I never opened a book. But one day my wife left out a copy of “Cold Sassy Tree” . I loved it and began reading again.
    I wasn’t born in the South, but I got here a quickly as I could. One day I realized after living in the South (Georgia) for over 50 years I had never read anything by William Faulkner. I found a copy of “Light in August “ and loved that one too.
    BTW, I hated that rope!!

    Reply
  29. Suzy - May 20, 2019 11:55 pm

    My mother was raised in the depression and didn’t believe in spending money needlessly. So one summer, when I announced that I wanted to play girl’s softball, she gave me an old three-finger glove to play with. How embarrassing! Plus I was really bad. (My struggles with the 600 yard dash in gym class should have been a sign.) Pretty soon, Mama was encouraging me to join the summer reading club at the library next to the softball field. I can’t remember if I quit mid-season but do remember falling in love with the library. To this day, I love to read (and even became an attorney). Not sure whatever happened to that old ball glove, but she made the right call for me. Keep up your wonderful writing. You are a blessing to some many!

    Reply

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