A Book That Made Me Me
I know I was created out of more than the books I read and the films I watched – genetics and environment also fashioned who I was and grew up to be.
Ah, but I’m going back to those years between 12 and 17 and remembering myself as impressionable as new clay, still forming, curious to know more of life and the wider world, full of wonder and a fear, too. Would I be able to find a place in this immense, towering human hive with all its evils to be faced and it’s pleasures to be discovered, and could I rise to all of this and make a place to stand?
I lived in a rural town in Illinois, trying to imagine the man whom I would be, and like a dry, unplanted field I began to absorb stories like a great storm of rain, and some of these stories sank deep enough to touch my soul. I will never forget them or forget the way they made me feel. Now and then, in these posts, I’ll share these books with you.
#1. “Kipling’s Stories For Boys.” This was not the Kipling who told how the leopard got his spots or the one spinning the wonderful “Jungle Book” tales of Mowgli. When this Kipling says in this title: ‘For Boys’ he means boys who are getting ready to be men, and these stories of his are mature and full of romance, murder, ghosts, despair, bloody combat and unbeatable adventure, all of themgraced by the master storyteller he was.
They include “The Man Who Would Be King,” one of the finest adventures ever written, and the story, “Bimi” the jealous Orangutan who (the reader does not witness this but learns…) attacks his rival, a woman, and “scattered her about the hut like a deck of cards.” No bedtime stories here.
The story that gripped me like strong old hands and shook me and then held me close, made my boyself weep, made me proud and inspired me to be brave, was “The Drums of the Fore and Aft,” the ‘Fore and Aft’ being the nickname of a British Regiment busy colonizing India’s Northwest Frontier with bullets and bayonets in the 1870s.
The Regiment, among others, had marched into the wilder reaches of what is now Afghanistan and the tribesmen there had rallied against them and massed in front of them. There would be a battle.
Before the battle begins let me introduce the protagonists of this tale, two of the regimental band boys, no more than fifteen years old; Lew a fife player, and Jakin, one of the drummers. These boys, raised rough in London, can fight and curse with the best and worst, and they love trouble and cause the Bandmaster and their Colonel fits. We’re listening in when they talk of their lives now and their dreams for later in a Cockney accent Kipling paints with a thick penpoint.
(Did it matter to me that I was the drummer in my grade school band? Did it help me slip into the tale?)
Back to the battle. The fierce tribesmen charge the British line, and most of the regiments stand fast and fire withering volleys, but the Fore and Aft is an untried outfit, and it’s officers order the men to close ranks, fix bayonets, and meet the charge as it comes.
The Afghanis rush at them with spears and swords and muskets and screams – and the red line wavers…and then the Fore and Aft breaks! They give way and then turn and run for the rocks behind them, running so fast they nearly trample their own regimental band, leaving Lew and Jakin startled and dusty and mad as hell.
They curse the running men in their boyish voices, screaming their outrage. They had come to do battle and… Well, by god, THEY’RE not running. They face the enemy and damn if they don’t move toward the horde of them, marching in step, as Lew Fifes and Jakin drums the tune of “The British Grenadier.”
The tribesmen stop and stare at this amazing sight, and the regiment, panting among the rocks, also stops, wide eyed, as the drum and fife rattle and pipe along.
The Afghani warriors begin cheering the bravery of the lads – and the Fore and Aft, why, look: they’re coming down from the rocks and forming up, very steady now, and here they come, advancing into the fray!
Each side fires its first volley, and the boys drop down dead in the sand. The regiment’s soldiers come ahead stone-faced, quiet and deadly, stepping over their fallen Lew and Jakin and taking on the foe like they were born for it, and the battle is won – by the bloodied boys on the desert floor.
At this point, as a boy, reading this story, I was weeping, and, I admit it, I’m welling up now. Call it corny, but my young self, torn with sorrow and pride, was never quite the same boy after that, because this deep stirring was always there, remembered, accessible, and it still is.
That a human being of 12 years old in 1953 in a small town in Illinois could be so lifted, transported by words on a page into these crashing events and live them so hard, so deeply – this was powerful magic to me, and the magic of storytelling has held my devotion ever since.
(In a future post -- book #2. “The Big Sky” by A. B. Guthrie, Jr.