a little known victory retold
[a shrift from the novel in progress, A Republic of Books, more of which can be found elsewhere in this ethereal site]
Given my lack of success, I have been asked more than once why I wanted to write in the first place, much less continue in the effort. Besides the loaded context, there is a certain stupidity inherent to the inquiry that begs to be ignored. I have never known someone who knew exactly why they wanted what they do, other than farmers and those few who take over their father’s business. (Note: we are not culturally advanced enough yet to have as many women following in their mother’s footsteps, but that time will come.) Most people, as I have mentioned before, don’t do what they ever dreamed of doing when they were young, but then again, those who gain some control of their lives often find themselves doing something they like.
Like the many reasons for naming my bookshop what it is, there are at least that many causes for me to write. More than that, I have actually written about those reasons before. But lying in bed the other night and trying to sleep to the rattle of a loose gutter battered by too much rain, I happened to remember one of the best of my excuses.
When we were kids—I was twelve and George was just about turned fifteen—and we were weekly detained by the Boy Scouts on Tuesday nights during colder months with various useless marching drills and color ceremonies in the school gymnasium—preparation, I suppose, for our future mandated detention in the United States Army—and then annually interned each July at Boy Haven summer camp in upstate New York, my brother and I sought extracurricular adventure beyond the well-trodden paths of Bear Mountain, the whereabouts of our rocky posting which had clearly once been intended for felons and prisoners of war.
This leaguer for boys was administered by a Headmaster by the name of Arthur Britain, the first adult male I ever saw wearing shorts in the woods. Mr. Britain weighed over two hundred pounds, was no taller than my brother at five and a half feet in his boots, and visibly unmuscled, which gave him the false appearance of being fat. He was, however, extraordinarily strong, able to take on five or more of the older boys in rope pulling, and could out-hike any one of his counselors. The memory of following the pink flash of his legs through the woods from a great distance behind is still with me. Despite his name, Arthur was quite German, had come to America after the war as an orphan and had attended this very camp as a boy. He eagerly told us these facts and more over the camp fire during ‘Introductions’ on our first night. In other words, he knew the place better than his charges.
It was during the last of those imprisonments when we were permitted some Sunday ‘free time,’ a rainy day ritual (it nearly always rained every day during our two weeks at camp), which amounted to a group visit to a local ‘Emporium.’ Note: this magical word was emblazoned in fancy gold letters on the building-wide sign at the front of an otherwise nondescript building so that no tourist could miss it in their rush, and is etched in my mind—scarred really—as if a stray and magical beam of sun glare had been caught in reflective light against the gray skies ever since. The Emporium sold nickel Heath Bars for a dime and hardened chewing gum, and creamless ice cream, but also carried maps. The one thing the Boy Scouts had properly done is to instill some sense in us of the magic of maps, and with the expenditure of 25 cents (reluctantly offered when the store clerk ordered us to leave the maps alone) it was quickly clear that beyond the borders of our Stalag was a remote wilderness only occasionally marred by a Borscht Belt hotel or nudist colony. And right there, in an aisle between a stack of blue jeans and farmer’s hats (these were what we called any hat not decorated by the name of a favorite baseball team), an escape plan was born.
Planning was called for. We were not the first of our number to get such an idea, nor, I imagine, the last, but we understood instinctively that the layout of the camp was designed for us to fail. (For instance, tunnels were impossible in this glacially peeled soil.) Our regular clothes were kept in a locker behind the headmaster’s office and not in the wooden trunk at the end of our beds—this being reserved for daily necessities and scout paraphernalia. Our Boy Scout uniform, including shorts and scarf, was required dress. My brother and I were in separate cabins, so communication was limited. Food was not permitted in the cabins to avoid the supposed culinary quests of bears and tigers and lions. The camp was situated on a peninsula with only one road in. There was in fact a fence, which we were told was intended to keep bears out. (We knew better.) The canoes were tied up inside a small harbor created by the dock and the muddy beach where we were expected to swim daily. However, each of these obstacles were methodically overcome.
Unlike William Holden and his comrades in Stalag 17, the movie which had obviously been made from a similar pitiable experience as ours, we did not need to worry about bullets. Only bullies. And it was one of these fellows, after being a regular pain in the neck for several days and nights while occupying the upper bunk, who was egged on by my brother until he broke and walloped George in public, resulting in the bully being transferred to another cabin. Not only did this remove a pair of prying eyes but it gave us an added excuse for our behavior.
It is important to note that this planning was only begun that Sunday, after the first week of indignations—getting up at dawn, being forced to swim in the icy waters of Lake Doodle, eat warm baloney with orange cheese and mayonnaise on white foam bread that stuck to the roof of your mouth, and sing idiotic folk songs which have only recently been surpassed for vacuity by the best of hip-hop. In other words, we had less than a week of our sentence remaining. Something like a prison inmate trying to escape the week before his parole.
The councilor in George’s cabin had a regular habit of sneaking out to smoke in the evenings. My own cabin councilor would disappear for an hour and we never knew what he was up to. The camp office was left unattended after nine o’clock. After Thursday’s canoe instruction I deftly passed the rope over but not through the metal loop on mine. Both of us put together a nice supply of various provisions, including a jar of peanut butter and an unopened loaf of foam bread, which had carelessly been stored too close to the open window in the kitchen. And at the appointed hour we both put on our ponchos to go to the latrine. We had chosen a rainy night so as not to be seen, which was the easiest part.
Being on a lake at night in the rain is a solitary experience—like being in a surreal room with only one vaguely visual dimension—the surface of the water closest-by. Heading straight in this murk was made much harder by the fact that George was considerably stronger and we both worried about turning in a circle. His loudly whispered objections and my equally loud complaints were likely audible from the shore if only someone had been there to listen. There was no wind, and only the drizzle on the water and our frantic whispers to hear.
Some time after midnight, after filling our boots with water and gashing our legs on unseen things in an effort to hide the canoe in some brush on the opposite shore, we set out to cross the saddle back of a small mountain. The mountain was invisible to us, of course, but the elevation was clear enough on the map, thus it was only the slope itself that we approached—endlessly. I slipped over and again on the lichen encrusted rock. I think I cried at least once. I was cold and the poncho clung to my wet skin. But in the presence of my brother I kept most of my complaint to myself. And as if to avoid witnessing the yawning black and miasmic shadow of the way before us, I occupied my mind with tales of the vengeful Headless Hessian Horseman and other ghosts. This fright brought the adrenaline to my veins and that, I think now, made the climb possible.
It was my ploy at the time, as a means of talking about the things that mattered to me, to ask a question which would elicit an inquiry from whomever I was with about what the hell I was talking about and this then opened the door to whatever was on my mind. I asked my brother if it was possible to ride a horse without being able to see. I think the question arose from my sympathy for his own pathfinding ahead of me.
“Sure. Blind people can ride horse. Why does that matter?”
“How about without a head?”
“Idiot! You can’t do anything without your head.”
“So there is no way for there to be a Headless Horseman.”
“That’s different. That’s a ghost. Ghosts don’t have heads. Or eyes. They’re nothing but smoke.”
“Do you believe in ghosts?”
His answer was too adamant.
We managed to go almost a mile beyond the lake through a thick woods of second growth accompanied by the four-part harmony of our wet boots and swarms of invisible mosquitoes, before enough adrenaline and blood was depleted from our veins and exhaustion overtook us. We camped (sat, really) at last beneath the hulking face of a rock escarpment amidst the constant loud dripping from the leaves and louder sigh of rain in the forest around us, and tried to sleep.
Unquiet, even in my fears, I had recounted to my brother some of what I had been reading, but in my own words. I suppose George let me talk so as to keep track of me in the dark.
What Irving had said was, “The British spy, major Andre was hung near here, and they say his ghost still hangs around.”
“I think that was across the river.”
“That’s like bowling, I think.”
“How much is a keg.”
“It’s a barrel.”
“Do you think someone could carry a barrel up this mountain?”
“If it was small enough.”
“Then, what’s a flagon?”
“A small dragon maybe.”
“But they drank from flagons.”
“The ones Rip van Winkle found.”
“Then it must be some kind of cup.”
The image of drinking from small dragons would not go away.
“George, do you think Washington Irving ever came over this way?”
I only stopped when George did not answer my question. But I don’t think he actually slept.
Being brothers, we had only come to punching and shoving twice. Once when George unexpectedly stopped to pee and I, walking behind him in the dark, knocked him over, and another time when I first discovered that my flashlight didn’t work and he pounded me for not double checking it beforehand (I did not tell him that I’d used the batteries up on reading Washington Irving under the covers). George is about two years older and twenty pounds heavier, so the outcome of our altercations was predetermined by nature.
At dawn, with an amazing chorus of crows in the trees directly above us—likely thinking of pecking our eyes out after we died of terminal drizzle and mosquito bites, we moved on. The rain had turned to a cold mist. The map, wet and breaking at every fold, had indicated a trail which we were attempting to follow, but we failed to notice that the dots in the dotted line were closer and not a path at all. What we were stumbling over was the bed of a rocky creek. Our shins were much abused.
The object of our trek was a house on Lake Stahahe, deep in what was, to us, remote wilderness. The reason had something to do with a friend of George’s, Peter Morse, whose family owned a cabin there that they did not often use. George had visited this retreat the autumn before to fish with his friend and his friend’s father. The reason the friend’s family did not often go there in summer, which was unknown to us, was the prevalence of mosquitoes.
But George had described the cabin to me as a neglected paradise which his friend had been forced to forgo that season so that he could spend more time with his family on Nantucket. Poor lad. And I do not remember now what the larger reasoning behind all of this was—very little reasoning at all I suppose. We were prone to adventures. But I have always believed it simply to be an innate American desire from within to escape. To be gone. To seek the frontier. The peek over the precipice. And this was exacerbated, exaggerated, and otherwise enhanced by the idea of somehow defeating Mr. Britain, whom we secretly referred to among ourselves—that is, campers and counselors alike—as ‘The Hun.’
The big mistake we made was in not having an exact location of the cabin, only a geographic proximity, which finally necessitated stopping to ask an older man who was walking his dog on a dirt and gravel road. He knew exactly where the Morse house was and gave us excellent directions. The mistake was that he also informed a state trooper of our inquiry not long after.
We found the house late in the afternoon following the night of our escape. The key was beneath the flower pot on the back porch, as expected. The rain had stopped. The sun suddenly danced on the water by a delicate dock of gray boards stretched between darkened pine logs, celebrating our deliverance. And, having tired of peanut butter, we fished.
The poles, with lines still tangled and crusty from the previous year’s use were bundled in the rafters of the porch. Hooks festooned an old cooking mitt pulled over the top knob of a coat rack. In the debris at the exit of a small stream close to the cabin, the crayfish were thick for bait. And as promised, the fishing was excellent. I caught a large bass. George caught two. We let the smallest of them go (given that the mosquitoes had already eaten their dinner, we estimated both fish would be necessary) and cleaned the big ones with our scout knives which had a fish scaling blade that was half the size needed.
We put kindling in a wood stove and used an iron pan to fry the fish is Crisco. The Crisco was there, waiting for us, otherwise I think we would have tried roasting the fish on a stick. Most of this, from cleaning the fish to opening the flu on the stove we had seen done before and argued our way through step by step with only one more bout of fisticuffs. But the fish was excellent. It is still savored in my mind.
That night we slept on bare mattresses beneath wool blankets and slept so soundly we did not hear the State Trooper until he was standing over us. From there we were driven back to the camp, where we were now celebrities, heroes even, and the object of a great deal of attention and scolding. But Arthur Britain was not there. In his four years as headmaster, no other child had escaped. No child had drowned. No child had been lost. Our canoe had been spotted that morning, and as we were being welcomed back by the other campers, Arthur Britain was somewhere off in the woods beyond the lake, following our trail. Having already been notified by the State Police, my father came and picked us up that afternoon before Mr. Britain returned. And the best part of all to the escapade, was that we never had go to another Boy Scout meeting. We were banished!
Other than the repeated use of small details from this adventure in various novels in the years since, the important part was the trek itself which had involved a fairly constant recollection, out loud, of the stories in The Sketch Book, by Geoffrey Crayon (aka Washington Irving), which was the book I had taken out of the Camp library and had most recently been reading beneath the covers at the expense of my flashlight batteries. Add the equally important part to that, necessitated by my brother’s worry that I would be lost in the dismal dark as well as my fear that he would run away and leave me, was the discovery of comfort in telling a story out loud. My children were all forced to endure this ritual to get them to sleep, which they often feigned in order to get me to stop, and I still do it, if only to myself.
It was much later that I discovered Washington Irving more fully, and learned that he was the first most successful American author of fiction, and came to admire the man for his persistence and integrity as an author. A truly extraordinary fellow. Besides being an excellent storyteller, essayist, journalist, biographer and historian, he was a wanderer, adventurer even, diplomat and ambassador to Spain. At the age of six, Irving had met the great man in New York, early in George Washington’s Presidency, and was later responsible for one of the best biographies of his namesake, a multi-volume opus filled with all the mischief of misinformation that long preserved the great founder’s reputation.
At the start of his career, Wash and his brother William establish the Salmagundi—or the Whim-whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, esq. & Others, a satirical periodical far ahead of its time. His History of New York from the Beginning of History to the Dutch Dynasty, written under the pseudonym of Diedrich Knickerbocker was a humorous poke at the pompous patroons of his native state. He studied law and passed the bar. But after Matilda Hoffman, his fiancee and daughter of a judge and legal mentor, died, he never married. He enlisted in the New York Militia during the War of 1812, but did not see action before its end. Forced by the bankruptcy of the family import-export business in England, where he had lived for many years, Irving only turned to writing regularly at the age of 35.
Among the many stories he published, most of which appeared in various newspapers of the time (back when they still separated fiction from non-fiction) is the fabulous collection, Tales of a Traveller, which contains the exploits of the marvelous Buckthorne.
Geoffrey Crayon tells us, “Among the great variety of characters which fall in a traveller’s way, I became acquainted during my sojourn in London, with an eccentric personage of the name of Buckthorne. He was a literary man, had lived much in the metropolis, and had acquired a great deal of curious, though unprofitable knowledge concerning it. He was a great observer of character, and could give the natural history of every odd animal that presented itself in this great wilderness of men. Finding me very curious about literary life and literary characters, he took much pains to gratify my curiosity.”
There is too much in Buckthorne that reminds a reader of Conan Doyle and his hero Holmes, but without resort to concocted mystery. A key subtitle to be found in the Irving tales is, “The Young Man of Great Expectations.” I wonder who else read the book in 1826? He has a dozen other titles of equal dimension, including “Adventure of the Mysterious Stranger, The Club of Queer Fellows, Grave Reflection of a Disappointed Man (a hundred years before the good Barbellion!), Hell Gate, The Devil and Tom Walker, and dozens more that captured my imagination even before the story was begun. But Buckthorne and his literary memoirs was an immediate opening to a better life for me.
Unfortunately, today Irving is barely read and generally known for only two short works and not even all of those: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. And I think this is because he never wrote a novel, though several of his histories are novelistic in scope. His Tales of the Alhambra are splendid, for instance, but episodic and his many biographies reflect on the subjects rather than the larger canvas of history. He is a far better writer than his contemporary, James Fenimore Cooper. But Cooper brilliantly cast the American experience of their time as an epic and focused on the sort of characters that personified a nation, offering context to mere fact. Irving too often played with the picaresque and humorous. It would be as if Sam Clemens had never written Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer, but satisfied himself with travelogs and jumping frogs.
The great hook, I think, for a kid from the 1950’s, was a cartoon version of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Walt Disney. And I am sure that it was this inspiration that made me grab the Sketchbook from a shelf in the Camp library and read it.
I have kept Irving on the shelf in the shop since the day we opened, often in complete sets, but other than those two short works, I seldom sell a volume, even after my best pitch. This is sobering to a writer as much as it is frustrating for a bookseller. If an author of such acclaim can be so forgotten, what hope is there for one that is little known? And if such good and even great work can be ignored on the shelf in favor of the below average crap that clogs the bestseller list on an average day, what use is there in being a writer or bookseller at all?
Thus hooked forever on the author’s fearless style, I finally came to read Irving’s Traveller’s Tales, and about that great raconteur, Buckthorne, when I was sixteen. There, I was immediately told that the literary life was a financially meager one which was rich only in those things that were most important, and thus to hope “my heart was as light as my purse.” I learned that, “The literary world is made up of little confederacies, each looking upon its own members as the lights of the universe, and considering all others as mere transient meteors, doomed soon to fall and be forgotten, while its own luminaries are to shine steadily on to immortality.” It was Buckthorne who first warned me that, “you must never think to become popular among wits by shining. They go into society to shine themselves, not to admire the brilliancy of others.” He got it right again when he said, “It is only the inferior orders that herd together, acquire strength and importance by their confederacies, and bear all the distinctive characteristics of their species.” So, it can be said then, that at least I was well prepared for what was to come.