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Finding awe in books as a kid

Jeff Simon

I never read fiction as a preteen. I had to hit puberty before I tried Lewis Carroll's "Alice" books and Kenneth Grahame's "The Wind in the Willows."

I loved books, anyway, even though what I kept coming back to was nonfiction. It was marvelous enough.

1. My favorite book when I was little was "The Golden Encyclopedia." I knew about Raggedy Ann and Andy, and Mike Mulligan, but I didn't care. Nothing in those books quite got to me the way the illustration did in "The Golden Encyclopedia" of a hammerhead shark. Little smart-aleck that I was, I thought I knew the way sharks were supposed to look. But there in this simply written encyclopedia for kids was a painting of a shark whose head was like the horizontal head of a hammer with eyes on the extreme ends of the sides.

The strangeness of The World Out There suddenly hit my sheltered self. Who could have imagined such a sea creature? Not my innocent, preteen self.

Nor did I imagine one of the direct ancient precursors of basketball was a game invented by the Aztecs using a wooden ball and a stone hoop sticking horizontally out of a wall. Their game looked a lot rougher than what we played on school playgrounds. You could see, though, how certain refinements over the centuries would make it downright democratic. At a young age, I grasped how little I knew of the world I actually lived in. I was awfully glad the basketball hoop attached to our garage wasn't made of stone, however decorative that might have been.

2. "Bill Stern's Favorite Baseball Stories." By the time I got my copy of this, it looked as if it had been through the hands of half the boys in my neighborhood. It just seemed to give the book authority, you know?

Stern – from Rochester – was one of America's primal sportscasters. The first, in fact, to telecast a baseball game on TV. His book is awash in eccentricities and other human marvels. Stern had an irresistible love of the weirdness of Jurassic baseball. He delighted in telling you about hard-throwing pitchers with names like Walter "Big Train" Johnson and screwballs like Rube Waddell and Rube Marquard and legendary batsmen like Rogers Hornsby and Napoleon "Nappy" Lajoie.

If nothing else, I learned from Stern the earliest American ballplayers had names modern ballplayers couldn't touch. The names they sported sounded like an aristocracy of American nuttiness.

Stern, I learned, was the great teller of sports tales before sports became one of America's biggest spectator businesses.

To this day, I wish that even if I couldn't meet Rube Waddell and Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown, someone could.

3. A series of stamp books whose name I don't remember but whose function seemed to be keeping kids busy and educated on rainy days when you couldn't go outside. In that way, they were like early computer tablets.

They were paperbound books whose final pages were composed of stamps to be detached and then affixed to the right spaces on the book's opening pages.

On the right pages, when finished, you'd find singly the flags of the world, the presidents of the United States and all the states of the union, among other things.

There was, for instance, the whole pageant of the American presidency, which began with one general – George Washington – and concluded with the former general and president of most of my youth, Dwight David Eisenhower. In between them, you'd find, too, detachable stamps of James K. Polk, Chester Arthur, Martin Van Buren and Franklin Pierce. If you paid attention, their obscure visages could be as familiar to you as those of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson and Harry S. Truman.

Who knew that in America men once wore sideburns? But there for us post-toddling '50s students of Americana was Arthur, whose face on a stamp fastened to a page was like a model for some future villain in a Frank Capra movie.

Somehow I just never gravitated to made-up stories on pages as a kid when TV was always there and books were so full of hammerhead sharks, Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown and Chester Arthur's muttonchops.

They all had one thing in common for me: On a low-level they produced awe.

I thought about that awe as a standard feature of '50s history. Presidents, to us, back then, were chieftains of the American species. We never, for a second, thought we would ever grow up to see the presidents we've seen in our senior years. Even James Buchanan – our only bachelor president, according to that stamp book – was designated to exist on a plain of history the rest of us could only vote for (or against).

The idea that in America anyone could grow up to be president never seemed literal until George W. Bush. But then, at the time, I said to myself, "Well, he came from political patricians, so despite his self-evident lacunae, he was, as Texas Gov. Ann Richards memorably said, 'Born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.' "

I'd met creatures of privilege like W. They were all good old boys who became ever-greater wonderments with every ascent up the American ladder.

With Donald Trump, the idea that, quite literally, anyone could grow up to be president suddenly hit with hurricane force. Yes, I knew he'd been born with pots of money, but until it happened, I never imagined a president of the United States could be roundly booed the minute his visage inhabited the Jumbotron of a World Series game.

Go all the way back to my awe-struck self affixing stamps to book pages. If you'd told me an American president could be booed at a World Series game, I wouldn't have believed it.

No sir. Not in a million years.

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