I was eleven years old when I was pulled out of New York City’s Public School 104 in Bay Ridge Brooklyn and siren screaming and bell clanging rushed downtown in a red Battalion Fire Chief’s car to where my father was dying of injuries received in a gas main explosion. Yet I wasn’t really worried. Nothing serious I was convinced, could ever happen to my Dad. Besides when we arrived at the hospital there were all these other big Firemen outside in the hall telling me and my mother and older sister that everything will be all right and I knew those guys. They climbed ladders ten stories high and jumped through flaming windows to pull babies out, chopped through steel doors in two seconds with their fire axe and effortlessly caught women jumping off a roofs. Guys who could tie any kind of knot and fix my bike no matter how badly I banged it up. So if they said everything was going to be all right, then everything was going to be all right.
It wasn’t that I didn’t understand what happens to Firemen. I had stood with my Dad on a quiet afternoon on an Engine Room floor while four bells struck four times telling us that somewhere, somehow in the city, another one of them had perished. I’d been to their wakes and I’d marched with my Dad in the Communion breakfast parade up from the St. Georges hotel in downtown Brooklyn where I’d heard speakers talk about them and I’d watched uniformed Firemen stand outside in the sunny city street and break down and cry. I’d seen the yellowed news photograph of dead New York City Firemen lined up on the Jersey shore after the Hoboken pier fire during the Second World War and I know my own Dad had to jump from an exploding ship in the same fire. I know my Dad and another Fireman fell down a elevator shaft a long ways, that as they started to drop through each grabbed the other, trying to save the other, and that only my Dad lived through it. But the point was that he had, that my Dad always lived through these things. He was, I was more than convinced, indestructible.
And as it turned out, he wouldn’t die that day. It’s wasn’t until years later that he succumbed to those injuries and the family summoned to Grant’s Tomb up on the West Side where the mayor would present my mother with a medal. But that day he would live, and the next, then school would end and I would begin a wonderful summer of adventure next to his bed.
Although I certainly see it that way in the beginning. Each morning of that summer vacation I was being handed a small package my mother or grandmother made up for him, a piece of cake or a sandwich he liked and a little note. Knowing my Dad couldn’t eat like that right now I rolled my eyes at the food but I dreaded the note because my Dad, when he was conscious enough, was so weak he had me read them to him and they were often very personal. Once I was so embarrassed I threw the note away the next day. I wish I could find it now, and I was ashamed of myself at the time and I never threw one away again. But little boys cringe at certain things parents say to one another and I think my Dad would have understood.
I was also sent off with a dollar. The city bus back and forth was twenty cents, fifty cents for lunch, ten cents for the tip, and twenty cents mad money. The Brooklyn Third Avenue bus. I was coming from way out from where it turned around at Shore Road overlooking the Narrows, no bridge to Staten Island shadowing the park then, and it took about an hour for it to get back downtown somewhere around Borough Hall after which I had to walk for quite a while through a strange neighborhood. To a boy from Bay Ridge is was like a trip to Europe, odd sights and sounds, different accents and different looking people but oddly familiar. There was a candy store just before the hospital where I would buy a soda on the way back for ten of my twenty extra cents and on the way in I would stop for a moment and read the headlines on the newspaper rack. President Eisenhower I could see, was always doing something.
For the first few days my Dad looked the same as on that first day. White and tiny, under an oxygen tent, with an IV running into his arm. Sometimes he’d open his eyes and seeing me there, smile. There was always a private duty nurse in the room thanks to the union and a day wouldn’t pass without a delegate coming in to make sure she was on duty, the doctor had made his rounds and that there wasn’t any delay over ordering the best medicine. Very often the Fireman would look around then prod me with a thumb, “let’s take a walk” and we’d wind up in the cafeteria where he’d pay for my lunch, “save your money kid” and even treat for ice cream. Then one day, I think in the second week, I was so tired of simply looking out the window on the bus trip back and forth and I took a book with me. It wasn’t much of a book, big letters and pictures about rockets and space travel but the Fireman noticed. “Read a lot of books?” he nodded approvingly and not wanting to admit I didn’t, I sort of shrugged. “Good” he leaned over conspiratorially, “I do every chance I get and I know your Dad is a big reader, a lot of the guys are.”
A cynic would say that my life was ready for the right sort of push but I hadn’t any premonition I only knew that despite being raised up among Fireman I never connected them with the books they’d leave laying around the fire house.. Books? A lot of them? Is that part of the reason why Firemen are so smart or so much larger than life? I think the remark was made on the same day the same Fireman walked me onto a pavilion on an upper story of the hospital where there was an iron fire escape ladder leading up, handed me his wallet and keys and showed me how he could climb it upside down and facing out faster than anyone could climb it normally. But it was the secret he seemed to have let me in on that snagged my imagination and I got to thinking that if I ever wanted to be Fireman I’d better start reading books, lots of books. Right away. Just like my Dad. Just like the other Firemen.
I read the rest of that book about rockets that day, the first book I ever finished, start to front, cover to cover and I don’t remember it’s title but I do the next. It was called As You Pass By, a big book, what we would call a coffee table warmer today, a history of the early Manhattan fire companies and all I could grab on the way out the door to the bus. Half a ream of eight point text and many glorious illustrations and maps and on the ride downtown I stumbled over enough words to realize that reading a lot of books wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought. But then when I got to the hospital I was in for a surprise, the oxygen tent was gone and my Dad was sitting up against his pillows, still weak and strained, his hand trembling but he had an eyebrow raised over an eye that looked like a chip of happy blue ice. “What have you got there” and I held the book up. “Did you want to read that?” “Yeah, sort of” I mumbled. “Good” my Dad sighed, “then why don’t you read it to me” and I took a deep breath, and dragging over a heavy metal chair close to him, sat down and started off. But I kept hitting more words I had to sound out like Amsterdam or Engineer and embarrassed my voice would drop down a notch and then another and another until I was more or less whispering in between longer and longer pauses. He looked at me quizzically and I held the book up to him with my finger on a word that had me stumped. “No I want you to read” he pushed it away and then reached out his hand and took mine, “I want you to read.” So I plopped the big book on his bed and held the pages open with the other arm and each time I froze he’d squeeze my hand, “don’t stop, just take a stab at it” then I would, he’d translate it and laugh, I’d laugh back, say it the right way and keep going.
At some point during the afternoon my Dad fell asleep and the nurse started helping work out the words as I doggedly kept reading on and on until it was time to leave, long past time to leave, and I was running the downtown streets dodging shopkeepers cranking their awnings in.
And then because he never not wanted to listen to listen to me read I eventually started borrowing from the library. Libraries were restricted then and an eleven year old wasn’t allowed in the adult section, but the children’s corner included the entire Landmark series of histories and biographies. Titles like The Battle Of Britain and The Life Of Jack London and the more of these I read the quicker the words came until I hit a pace that allowed both him and I to enjoy the story. And hand in hand we explored together what it meant to built an enormous bridge, become Madam Curie and Louis Pasteur, a cowboy, a buffalo, a whale.
Each of those Landmark books listed all the other ones in the series on the back cover, one hundred one of them and I remember like it was yesterday carrying number thirty four into the hospital that last day I traveled there, almost the last day before my Dad made it home. He sat up straight that morning, swung his legs over the bed and took my hand, “what have you got there” he laughed, “not another book?” “Yeah” I laughed and for the first time he let go off my hand and I read it to him from the other side of the room sitting in the upholstered chair the nurse usually used with my feet curled under me. And then with school starting again, two sisters, a baby brother and grandmother in the tiny apartment, with friends stopping in, with flowers arriving and doctor visits I couldn’t read to him any longer. But it didn’t seem to matter because by then I was airborne knocking off one new book after another after school, maybe another afterwards in the quiet place I found for myself on the apartment house landing up by the door to the roof. And having read myself out of the children’s section in the library I tripped over science fiction thrillers and found out that out I could buy those books in a drugstore for the thirty five cents I could make running errands. Once even an errand brought me a book because Mrs., Deitrich, a widow on the third floor of our apartment house hired me to do her shopping, fifty cents I think she paid me, and noticing that I always had a book in my pocket made me a present of one. Her brother’s favorite she told me and when I got back to my apartment I discovered that she’s given me a first edition of Huckleberry Finn.
Then sometime after I devoured that green and gold bound volume I was shocked to learn that adults actually throw books away. Down in the cellar of the apartment house was an incinerator and next to it was often a cardboard box or two of paperbacks I could rummage through and out of one of those boxes I pulled Leon Uris’ Battle Cry and Stuart Cloete’s Rags Of Glory, read them and started to realize that when someone starts you off reading what they’re really doing is sending you racing down a maze with many unsuspected turns because after those two books I knew I would never ride a Pumper through the City’s streets or storm cross town in a Ladder Company like my Dad because I had somehow decided that I was going to a Marine and after that have a life in the country. Hopefully on a farm or ranch but definitely not in the city.
Which I know was a great disappointment. My Dad did want me to take his shield number and become a Fireman too. But he never said that to me, he only said he wanted me to read. And in that he wasn’t disappointed, ever. Not that reading kept me out of trouble, maybe out of big trouble, but not trouble if you know what I mean. Not that reading meant I always made the right decisions because it didn’t. But I did become a Marine and I did wind up on top of a mountain and in the sense that he wanted me to read so that I find out what sort of life I wanted, maybe he wasn’t all that disappointed about the Fire Department.
And I think he would have been very happy over how the idea got passed on because while none of my six children ever knew my father, or sat where I sat that long summer long gone by, they all went on to become happily voracious readers and eventually they too read their own way into their own boots.
All of which has gone a long way to convince me that as a society we’ve turned the issue of learning how to read on its head. In embracing the really odd idea that adults should read to children instead of the other way round we almost automatically guarantee that they’ll never receive the sort of encouragement I did. Or the sense of accomplishment. And besides my trying to entertain a child by reading aloud can’t compete with the DVD player. So I don’t even try. Instead I’ll ask my two year old granddaughter if she wants to read me a story and if she says yes I’ll plunk her on my lap, let her open her book and start. She doesn’t know all of the words, in fact she doesn’t know any, but she does recognize a picture of a duck when she sees it, and she sees that the duck is doing something interesting and she’s getting the point that the words underneath the picture describe what’s happening. I know because she points at them, tries to guess at how they’re pronounced and after I help her I let her move on, on her own, to the next because I can feel the power building and know that at some point in time, and I don’t really care when because I’m really enjoying her on my lap right now, she’ll figure out one, then two, then dozens and almost before I know it she’s going to be on the other side of the room from me and then out the door racing down that same maze on her own way to wherever she wants to be.
But of course I do hope she remembers that I held her for a while and got her to read so that she could launch off on her own.
Just like those long ago New York City Fireman did me.