On Reading

John Cortesi

© Copyright 2020 by John Cortesi

Photo of a painting about reading.  Coiurtesy of Pixabay.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Reading has always been one of the central passions of my life. Like an alchemist’s brew the evocative power of words has intoxicated me with wonder, fear, curiosity, desire, and the myriad little epiphanies that come with the reading experience. I think that most of us who hear the siren call of the written word need an interlude, a pause in our daily active lives, to penetrate with tranquility the reality of being in silent community with the experiences, lives and voices of others.

Most of us readers had the initial experience of being read to. In this great gift bequeathed to us by parents, grandparents, and teachers, we developed an internal sensory compass. In being read to we felt happiness, sadness, excitement, and a sense of mystery alive in the world. We wanted to be like that character, to see that place, to experience that situation.

My earliest memory of listening to the written word was at the age of four. My mother read me a tale about bats leaving their nests at night flying off into the night through caves and out into the bright moonlight, flying above landscapes alive with the sounds of chirping crickets and bleating toads. After that first reading I insisted on hearing this tale nightly, with all lights except the reading lamp off, so that I might feel the presence of the bats outside our house. My imagination evoked a sense of mystery about the night and the creatures and beings who move in the dark. When read by candlelight a newly awakened sensory world opened up to me and I delighted in its power to bring me sensual and imaginative pleasure.

While in kindergarten I asked my father, before he left for work each afternoon, to read to me from a book about Davey Crockett. The battle at The Alamo and Davey’s death awoke in me a wonder about mortality, about death. I wanted to see, to be at, the place where Davey lived the last moments of his life. By the time I was in third grade I was writing letters to the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce asking for information about The Alamo.

I put on a coonskin hat and, with my friends, acted out that battle and the death of Davey Crockett. In my mind I could hear cannon and gunshot fire, smell powder and smoke, and hear the shouts and screams of men in battle. I tried to visualize what the shattered remains of the fort looked like against the horizon of the rolling Texas plains. From the time I was five years old I harbored a deep desire to walk the fortress of The Alamo and experience being a silent sentinel watching from its walls.

Years later, while in the Air Force, I was stationed in Texas and looked forward with great anticipation to a long and dusty ride across the plains to where The Alamo would surely stand. I was deeply disappointed at the age of 18 to discover that the fort was in the heart of a city surrounded by chain stores and gas stations! But once inside the fortress my once-upon-a-time five-year-old world blossomed. Thirteen years of reading had established an inventory of images and sensations in my interior world that re-illuminated the past for me.

In the third grade my next door neighbor and best friend showed me a book called The Sinister Signpost, one of the Hardy Boys series. The very title caused my imagination to take a quantum leap! Where does the sinister signpost lead to, and why is it sinister? Street lamps enveloped in fog, midnight bells, and the sound of distant footsteps emerged from my interior world. Besides the chilling title, the story of how my friend came to possess it inflamed me with an urgent desire to read it.

Don, three years older than I, told me that while on a boating excursion with the Sea Scouts they had stopped at a small, remote island in an estuary. As part of their activity, the Scouts were told to dismantle an aged, long-abandoned shack. It was a foggy and overcast day, Don said, and they had to walk through sucking mud and high weeds. While he and his group were using pry bars to pull apart the walls and wooden floor, Don found a rusted canister under the floor. In it was The Sinister Signpost.

The old shack, the mud and weeds, the rusty canister, the book – all entwined in my imagination to start searchlights beckoning my senses. I can still see the faded rust-brown book cover, the title in black bold-faced letters. The distinct odor of mildew came from the yellowed pages. For the next week my evenings were devoted to the Hardy Boys’ adventures, followed by an adolescent-long anticipation of the next book, the next adventure.

All of these reading experiences formed a bedrock of sensitivity, curiosity and reflection that worked together to make reading an active experience in my life. Reading was for me a solitary interlude in my childhood that I deeply needed. An only child in a neighborhood of large families, I found that books could ease my loneliness, my fear of being different. Envious of my friends with brothers and sisters, books became my companions.

I had a fear of large crowds, noise and frenetic activity and sought out of the way places to spend my private time. One of the magic places I discovered in the summer of 1958 was an old and dilapidated wooden building that had been a Japanese American school until the early 1940s. When Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps from 1942 to 1945, the school had been unattended and vandalized.

We had to walk down a weed-infested alley behind our folks’ houses and then cross the Southern Pacific railroad tracks into a great field. Perhaps a hundred yards beyond the tracks stood the abandoned school. Unaware of its history we called it the Japanese Church and thought that it might be haunted, or inhabited by a lone hobo seeking sanctuary. We never ventured into its interior.

One afternoon a neighborhood boy threatened to beat me up so I hid inside the old school. I can still feel the cool shadows of its interior. On one side was an elevated stage with a sagging, torn curtain hanging down. On the floor beneath the stage was a piano with its top torn off and loose strings spilling out. On the other side steps led to a loft with a rusted basketball hoop nailed to the overhang. Dust motes circled in the afternoon sunlight pouring through the broken windows. Broken bits of wood and glass littered the floor. I was absolutely absorbed, seeing and feeling like I never had before. I strained to hear imaginary voices and in that moment knew that I had found a home, a place to be alone, a place to read.

My book of choice at the time was Tom Sawyer, and so at the age of nine, I climbed the steps to the loft, sat down against the facade, and read with intensity the adventures of Tom and Huckleberry Finn. As I read each afternoon I put my book down occasionally, closed my eyes, and imagined the stars above and the smell of night as Tom, Huck and I floated down the Mississippi River.

I distinctly remember a passage in Huckleberry Finn where Huck wakes up in his canoe, hidden in the willows along the riverbank, and comments, “…it smelt late. You know what I mean?” Yes! I knew that smell!

In the middle of one reverie I opened my eyes to see an old woman, the wife of a caretaker it turned out, watching me from where she stood on the top stair. I had just finished reading the passage where Tom was hiding in the balcony as outlaws wandered around suspiciously on the ground floor. I let out with a loud “Whoop!” startling the old woman as she had startled me. When we had both regained our composure she smiled and gestured for me to continue reading, We never exchanged a word but I sensed that she understood the pull my reading place had for me, as if she said, “You are welcome here…Read.” I did.

One quiet afternoon, after reading the night cemetery scene where Tom and Huck see Dr. Robinson, Injun Joe and Muff Potter, I closed my eyes, visualizing what I needed to do. I decided that on the first rainy night of winter I would sneak out to the old Victorian cemetery a mile or so from our house, climb an old elm tree towering among the sunken and scattered headstones and I would see and feel as Tom and Huck had. No longer content with the imaginative power of words, I now needed to experience the physicality of night, and rain, and shadows.

That summer I devoured Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, several Hardy Boys adventures, and a mystery entitled The Case of the Purple Hand. I shall never forget the peace of that dilapidated old wooden building, the elixir of reading fueling my need for experience. A kind of catharsis occurred each afternoon as I slipped into the mood of the book and the building. Curiosity, suspense, reverie, and fear were my companion emotions that summer.

As school began that fall I eagerly, and fearfully, anticipated the changing season, The intensity of my desire for rain had much to do with the hope of testing, and proving, my courage. I had a deep fear of fighting, and of the dark, and had failed many childhood tests of bravery. One quiet afternoon the creaking and settling of the old school had sent me running out of the loft, returning in shame the next day. But now I would pit my desire for adventure against fear; I would climb a tall tree on a rainy night in a dark cemetery. I would prove that I could be as brave as Tom and Huck.

In my compulsory fourth-grade diary I see the word “rain” underlined on the November 10, 1958, date. I couldn’t concentrate and could barely eat that day at school as I watched the rain soak into the schoolyard grounds. When the last bell rang that day and my classmates departed, I walked alone in the corridors anticipating my experience-to-be that night. I became sensitized to the sounds and smells around me, the smell of wax and cleanser and damp earth, the tingling noise of rain against the metal gutters, of tetherball chains rattling against the poles. I felt like Tom and Huck as I planned my adventure.

After dinner I asked my mother if it I might visit the Dunbar family down the street. After her affirmative reply I went to my room and quickly re-read the cemetery scene. As I left the house the rain intensified and as I crossed the railroad tracks I began to have second thoughts. Stories I had heard of hobos hiding in the cemetery, of kids out to catch lizards who had fallen through eroded earth into century-old graves, of strange noises coming from the ivy and oleander growing over rusted iron fences.

But I went on, jumping a cyclone fence and running across three acres of lawn behind the high school. I ducked under a grove of redwood trees on the school’s outer perimeter, getting showered with water from the lower branches, reaching the outer edge of the cemetery. I pushed aside oleander bushes and walked the old muddy trail that wove through the grounds, the marble monuments and spires, worn sandstone grave markers, wind and rain all intoxicating me. Fear, panic, curiosity, mystery, and the need to complete my ordained task, commingled as I walked through the mud and rain, over rotting wood and debris, through ivy and dead sunflowers, to the elm tree I had chosen. A faint yellow light from the bell tower of a century-old Baptist church across the road was more sinister than comforting.

The elm tree towered over a mausoleum with the family name “Gooch” engraved into the marble above the vault door. As I started to climb the tree my hands slipped on the rain-slick branches and I desperately wrapped my legs around another branch, panting and kicking. I made my way up to a high limb, bouncing in the wind, the rain sweeping almost horizontally through the remaining leaves.

I imagined Injun Joe, Muff Potter, and Dr. Robinson wending their way closer to my hiding place and I was exultant! I had done something courageous! I had pitted my fear against the night, the cemetery, the elements, the symbols of death…and the unknown. At that instant I knew that I would never again read a book in quite the same way, Words had become real, alive. I knew that other adventures awaited me, that all I needed was the curiosity to read and, by reading, to explore. I came home that night at nine wet, cold, muddy…and different.

As I look back on my reading life I see a woman reading to me by candlelight, an abandoned building, a smiling face urging me to continue reading, a decrepit cemetery, a weathered marble vault, a tree, a dim yellow light in a bell tower, weedy fields, and books. And I am enormously grateful for the many joys and gifts they have brought to my life.

I am a retired Teamster Dock Worker.  I was born and raised in San Lorenzo, California, but spent the summers of my youth in the small township of Coal Creek, Colorado.  I attended College for 12 years not in pursuit of a degree related job, but because I wanted to take classes in as many disciplines as possible before working career wise in the blue collar occupation.  To pay for my tuition during those college years, I worked as a dish washer, checker in a grocery store, assembly line worker in a sheet metal factory, janitor, shelf stocker on the 12 a.m. 8:30 p.m. shift in a store, and lastly working out of a Teamster Hiring Hall, loading and unloading trucks in both freight and produce.  My favorite reading quote is by Larry McMurtry; "the great readers will always know about books that neither the marketplace nor the academy has gotten around to."

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