Continuing the sad series about the pictures on the wall of the little bathroom adjoining my study.
Okay, this one is a little embarrassing. The young George Armstrong Custer. Posing like a peacock. So what is he doing on your wall? you ask.
If you're asking that question, then you're revealing that you haven't, you know, always kept up with this blog. I've written about Custer before, now and then. And in my memoir Turning Pages: A Memoir of Books and Libraries and Loss (Kindle Direct, 2012--link to the Amazon page) I wrote a bit about my boyhood fascination with Custer--called "Autie" by his family.
That fascination began back in my Oklahoma boyhood when my parents--alarmed that I seemed interested entirely in comic books and bad TV (in my defense, it was almost all bad back in the early 1950s) and baseball--started buying for me a series of books of the kind we now call "YA" (Young Adult). They were published by Random House in a series called Landmark Books, and many were biographies of notable folks.
I see on the ever-reliable Internet that there were some 112 of them (link to list of them all), and they ranged from books about wars to books about warriors--though they tossed in a biography of P. T. Barnum and a history of American railroads, and the like. But their Main Meat was war. Civil, Revolutionary, World Wars, etc. And Custer fit right in.
My parents gave me Custer's Last Stand by Quentin Reynolds (a respected journalist, by the way) not long after it was published in 1951 (I turned seven that year), and I read it, oh, 493 times or so. Wrote book reports on it at school--that's right, reports, plural. (I was ethically challenged as a lad.) I have a copy still on my shelf, but (no longer ethically challenged) I have to report that it's not the one I originally owned. I bought in on ABE, a used-book site, where (I just looked) you can still get copies, the most expensive one listed today going for $99.99.
It's a pro-Custer book, of course--but with some surprising sensitivity about the mistreatment of Native Americans. (Surprising for 1951, that's for sure.)
As I grew into adolescence, my Custer-mania did not really diminish. On a family car trip out to Oregon (where my dad's family lived) we stopped once at the Custer Battlefield. In those days (pre-Interstate 90) it took some geeing and hawing to get there. Now, naturally, there's a freeway interchange right by the place, now called the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. (Link to their site.)
And as the years went on, I read lots of other books about Custer--both nonfiction and fiction. My favorite of the latter? Thomas Berger's Little Big Man (1964--later, 1970, made into a film with Dustin Hoffman--link to YouTube trailer for the film). (And, yes, I have a first printing.)
And of course ... times changed. Custer morphed from hero/martyr to oppressor and then back a bit (some recent books credit him for saving the day for the North at Gettysburg). I continued buying and reading Custer books--even reviewed several of them (like Nathaniel Philbrick's fine 2010 volume on the Last Stand--link to my review). Joyce and I visited his home in Monroe, Michigan (there's a statue there, too), and have several times gone to his birthplace in tiny New Rumley, Ohio. For a period of years we would go down there on Labor Day with our son and have a picnic. Years later, we went there with our son and his first son on Labor Day, too. I know, I know ...
There's also a big statue of Custer in New Rumley. Here's a photo from Labor Day, 1985. Father and son (who had just turned 13).
As for the Custer photograph on my bathroom wall? I'm not sure where I got it. Perhaps in Montana at the battlefield. Maybe elsewhere. Can't remember. But it's a reminder for me of all sorts of things--of reading, of history, of changing conceptions of valor, of having a great time with my son and wife, who, loving me as they always have, indulged even the daffiest of my passions.