Tuesday, January 15, 2013
Throughout my life, reading has gotten me into all kinds of trouble, small and large. When I was younger (much younger), there were those books I was reading (in school) when I was supposed to be doing other things--like worksheets in arithmetic or capital letters. I liked sneaking, say, Jim Bowie: Boy with a Hunting Knife (by Gertrude Hecker Winders, 1953) out of my desk--we had the old wooden lift-top type back in Adams School--and reading about adventures in the bayou country--or death at the Alamo--to adding a sheet full of problems (3x6 =? 3x7 =?).
Even later--reading Lady Chatterley's Lover and James Baldwin's Another Country, I had to conceal them well among my other books so that some of the more censorious adults in my life would not detect them and then subject me to some Perry Masonion questioning.
And then I began reading books whose authors challenged the political and religious and social beliefs that my parents had instilled in me, with moderate success. Those authors' words--spilling from my mouth in heated debate--had enormous shock value. Which made them all the more satisfying to my immature soul. Contradicting my parents ... there was a thrill in that whose pleasures diminished considerably when I became a father myself.
Now, of course, no one cares what I read. And so my life is a-clutter with all sort of books, from Thackeray to Michael Connelly to Suzanne Collins (yes, I read one) to Stephenie Meyer (yes, I read one) to J. K. Rowling (yes, I read them all) to Mark Twain to ...
And speaking of Twain and trouble ... I mentioned that reading had gotten me into trouble, small and large. This morning it was small trouble. And Twain was the occasion.
I was in a local coffee shop, reading a new collection of letters that people wrote to Mark Twain throughout his career. One of those letters, later in his life, came from a boy who knew about Twain's cigar-smoking habits. (Twain chain-smoked them.) The boy told his hero that he (the boy) collected the bands from cigars. He wondered if Twain would send him any unusual ones that he had.
And tears leapt to my eyes.
My father smoked cigars on occasion--usually on the weekends, or on holidays--and until I read that little boy's letter, I'd totally forgotten the ritual my father enacted each time he got ready to fire one up when my brothers and I were little.
He would trim the end, inspect the length, then--with some ceremony--remove the band from the cigar and hold it before him as if it were the One Ring. And three little Dyer boys would commence begging for that ring. And Dad--again with some ceremony--would bestow it on one of us (did he rotate it among us? did he remember the sequence?), and one little boy would slip in on his finger and feel, for a time, well, special.
But, of course, they didn't last long. They were paper. And before long, it would tear. Or we would tire of it. And it would end up in the trash. Forgotten.
Years passed. Our passion for the rings ended. My father quit smoking cigars. And then, in November 1999, he died.
And I had completely forgotten those childhood ceremonies of the ring until this morning, when, reading a letter from a little boy, a letter written more than a century ago, I got into trouble, realizing there was something in my eye.