For the fifth grade I was transferred to a new school. Cassandra Public School was on the other side of the ravine in our little suburb, and really not that far from my first school, but it was still a whole new world to me, full of strange kids and unknown teachers. As the last of four children, I had always enjoyed being “known.” Now I was to be anonymous.
The school itself was on a common suburban street, Cassandra Boulevard. It was as undistinguished as you can imagine. It was THE public school, just as, around the corner, there was THE junior high school. Up the way and closer to the main drag was THE high school. I can’t imagine any parent thinking about the quality of education in that suburban world, or vying for their children to go to a better or more prestigious school. Such was education as laid out in the 1950’s and 1960’s. This was the suburbs of the 1970’s.
As I had no friends yet, and being in a new school, and not being at all athletic, and not seeing myself as particularly “part of the group,” I soon found the school library. This was a pretty meagre affair but well laid out in its own way. It was on the second floor, two classrooms adjoined and broadloomed in cheap industrial green. Outside of class assignments, I don’t think I ever saw any kids in there of their own accord. Except me.
To this day I know where everything in that little library was. I can even tell you the pride of place “The Hobbit” was given. But soon I focused on the 921 section, in the far-right corner and on the lower shelves.
It was here that I came across a row of books that appealed to me mostly because they simply looked the way books should look. They were jacketless hardcovers, dark grey for the most part, about 230 pages per volume, with fairly large print. And even if they had pen and ink drawings within them, they were book books – meaning, books to be read, not to be looked at. And they appeared to be part of a series. I guessed them to be from the 1950’s - a bygone era now, not quite so bygone in that year of 1975.
I took out two volumes and was surprised by how fast I read them. I was utterly engrossed. I don’t remember what the first two were, but let’s just say “The Life of William Shakespeare” would be one and the other would be “The Life of Thomas Edison.” I felt very grown up reading these books, but at the same time exulted in how quickly they moved. I suspect in the back of my head I knew that this set was for “Young Readers,” but I’m not sure I cared.
In time I would plow through the entire shelf. This meant I had to get through the lives of people I had never heard of (Madame Curie? Louis Pasteur?) but I never read one that wasn’t a one hundred percent page turner. Pen and ink drawings every few pages helped.
I certainly didn’t make a scientific or even editorial examination of what I was reading, but if I had I hope I would have recognized that there was reason behind the careful if unusual subject choices the publishers and editors had made. These books were about world beaters; inventors or writers, explorers (just now as I wrote that word, I remember reading the life of Henry Hudson!!) and even a few Presidents. No military men and no dictators. No Genghis Khan, but yes Marco Polo (just remembered that too). Plucky folk who overcame adversity to make the world a better place. I loved all of this, and I still think there’s something wonderfully optimistic about expecting a 10-year-old to enthusiastically read the life of Daniel Defoe.
Since then, I have immersed myself in all books. I have ruined the floors of many rented apartments. I have had to learn to build my own bookshelves to fit my specific requirements. To say I am a bibliophile is absurd. I am THE bibliophile.
Yet for all I have acquired, my mind has often wandered with affection back to those books at the Cassandra library and I have even, a few times, sought them out. I was convinced that the series was published by Harper and Row, but searches on Abebooks (www.abebooks.com) made me wonder if in fact it wasn’t Grosset and Dunlop. I’ve found a few other publishing candidates (Farrar?), but I never found the real books themselves. Eventually, I decided it didn’t really matter and dropped the search.
But if it didn’t really matter, then why have I been thinking so much about them lately? At this time specifically? And why is the some of the pen-and-ink imagery so strong in my mind?
That's key. I have a very clear memory of a drawing of young Thomas Edison being hauled back onto the safety of a speeding train from which he had fallen. Some helpful soul averted tragedy by improbably yanking young Tom (who was pluckily selling newspapers on the train) by the ear. The ear! This was top notch stuff as far as I was concerned, complete with the implicit threat to our entire society; obviously, if Tom had fallen off the train, we’d all be sitting in the dark playing the spoons for our own amusement because there’d be no lightbulb and no phonograph.
Except, of course, the story is absurd and has been debunked by many a scholar. In fact, I would say that more than 50% of what I took out of those books, fact-wise, has been proven false or at the very least badly tarnished. Marco Polo is almost impossible to equate with the character I read about, and Christopher Columbus, obviously, has justifiably taken a beating. Madame Curie stands unblemished in my mind, but that’s only because I doubt if I’ve read a word about Madame Curie since 1975. George Washington, of course, has been realigned as a result of all of all adult reading, and so has Ben Franklin.
Clearly, this is a good thing. One doesn’t want to be hoodwinked by whitewashed history and childish fables. One wants to be aware. One wants to be savvy. One wants to put away childish notions.
Except that last Saturday a man named Joe Biden was declared the winner of the U.S. Presidency.
My entire family – in fact, pretty much everyone I know – breathed a sigh of relief. Those of us that are here in California sat and watched TV for the rest of the day in a sort of stupefied daze. My daughter, at school in Washington, went down to Lafayette Park to celebrate, and there she was on the news, along with hundreds of thousands, maybe millions around the world, taking part in a sort of international block party. She took a remarkable photo of a young couple embracing, and it made me tear up. The heartfelt relief in that image is so palpable...
We could go into all the reasons why people were celebrating. We could even, I guess, go into all the reasons why they shouldn’t have been celebrating. We could surely go into all the reasons we should sneer at celebration itself. But I don’t think anyone can tear apart the reality that people needed to celebrate.
And they needed to celebrate for the same reason that I once embraced a Young Reader’s tale that I needed to be told. In this case it is not Tom Edison surviving his train accident so he could go on to invention the light bulb, it is the story of Joe the humble, Joe the righteous, Joe the decent, Joe the honorable.
Time and distance have taught me two things about this kind of thinking, again stemming from that shelf of books at the Cassandra Public School library. The first lesson is that we must not accept what we are given at face value; we must be critical, and we must question everything. The second lesson, however, pretty much flies in the face of that: sometimes we need heroes, and sometimes we must park our critical thinking and save our very sanity instead. And we needn't be ashamed of doing so.
I find it interesting to note when and how America has done this to itself. It usually does so – to paraphrase Churchill – only after trying everything else first.
For instance, the verdict is pretty much in on Christopher Columbus, and so Columbus Day isn’t what it was even when I was a child. And I think that’s good. I also think the nation has done this to Chris because we don’t really need Christopher Columbus.
George Washington, on the other hand, we seem to need. So after the stories about his wooden teeth and debunking the cherry tree and going after him for all his horrendous failings as a man and leader - even including lousy generalship - we have put him back where we need him to be. We need a father of the country, and he is admirable enough for that role.
JFK is another example, and more amazing to me because of when I was born. I came of age at exactly the time when JFK’s outrageous peccadilloes were first revealed – sex with Marilyn and, it seems, everyone else. Add that to the re-examination of his spotty public record, the hesitation on Civil Rights, the stolen election in Illinois, his foray into Vietnam, his health, and on and on. When I was a boy, JFK became a punchline and Camelot went up in flames.
And yet, somehow, somewhere, we seem to have shunted much of this aside as well. It’s as if, as a nation, we have accepted the truth and reached instead for the JFK we need, truth be damned. So, JFK is back on his monument, dashing, handsome, haunted Jack. I witnessed this while standing at his eternal flame last summer. People sure weren’t talking about Marilyn. There were bowed heads and the silent click of cellphone cameras.
Just ask ex-Senator Rick Santorum. In 2012, Rick Santorum was running for President, and decided to score points on the religion front by saying that JFK’s famous 1960 speech made him sick. The backlash against Santorum – which helped destroy his candidacy – was instantaneous and took Santorum completely by surprise. Perhaps he didn’t get the memo; we need JFK the legend and we’ve pretty much decided to ignore everything else.
Obviously, the clergy know this truth, as do oncologists, as do specialists in child learning disabilities. We need hope and we need belief in times of trial, but we are complex enough organisms to be able to hold two ideas in our head: one, that there is no God, the other that there most assuredly is, especially if you’re looking at the Grand Canyon.
There are days when I need to say “gosh” when I think about Thomas Edison inventing all that stuff, when I need to be filled with wonder at just how industrious Benjamin Franklin was, and just how brilliant Marie Curie was. I need this, just as I need to salute a piece of cloth flapping in the breeze and imagine it means something that can bring me to tears.
In this same spirit, I need Joe Biden right now.
For my mental health. I need to believe in him as I believe in those other things and more. I need to believe that everyone who voted for him did so with decent, kind thoughts in their loving hearts. In fact, I have no time right now for any other notion, or wisdom, or cynicism. I can be smart about the real Joe Biden later, but right now the Joe Biden before me has been given a special place in my heart simply so I can trust my neighbor and chat with the guy at the grocery store and believe in a piece of cloth flapping in the breeze - and believe that a series of about twenty-six dusty hardcover books in a long-gone public school library gave me the truth about the most incredible people I need to emulate and a code by which I can live my life.
I need hope and so do you, and that is often more important than truth. For now.