When I was a kid, I read a lot. My Dad was a pastor, and often during the week he would take me along as he went calling on members of his flock. I guess most kids would go crazy waiting for their father to be finished holding the hand of a bedfast octogenarian who was reciting her list of medications, as well as the names and life histories of her fifty-two great grandchildren. Not me! As long as the octogenarian owned a reasonably well-stocked bookshelf, I was content. When it came time to go I would have to be coaxed out of the corner where I had retreated into the imaginary world I had discovered within the pages of my book.
In a pinch, I could read just about anything: vintage issues of the Ladies Home Journal, Shakespeare, poetry, comic books, history, crock pot manuals, biographies, The Wall Street Journal, ghost stories, Chilton’s, the TV Guide… Once, while my Father was preoccupied with a marital counseling session, I rummaged around for reading material until I was lucky enough to discover a fascinating heart-shaped box tied with faded ribbon and full of yellowed letters.
Boy, did that box ever shed light on the dating habits of the counselees! It was nearly more than I could take. It did puzzle me, however; why two people who had called each other all those embarrassingly mushy names during their courtship would now require my Father’s intervention to save their marriage. I finally concluded that their change of heart had occurred simultaneously with the purchase of corrective lenses. Clearly, the physical attributes by which they had described each other in the letters in no way matched the balding plump couple my father was counseling. Once they had discovered their error, the shock must have been devastating.
At any rate, although I could read anything to kill time, my favorite genre was romantic swashbuckling adventure fiction. Show me a shelf full of The Hardy Boys, Sir Walter Scott, or Mark Twain and I was like an alcoholic in a brewery. When he finally found me, Dad would have to detox me by forcing me outside to ride my bike for an hour.
Of course, as strung out as my imagination was from all that reading, I never even realized I was on a bicycle. It was a Sopwith Camel, and I was Major William “Snoopy” Barker, hammering away with my Vickers machine gun at the Red Baron as we dogfought to the death, high above Britain. Or else the bike was a galloping destrier that I, the gallant Ivanhoe, rode with fixed lance down the list toward Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert as I strove to win the favor of fair Lady Rowena.
I experienced a phase during which I was obsessed with medieval adventures. Pirates were cool, and cowboys were neat, but there was just something about the middle ages that sent shivers up and down my spine. I guess it was the chivalry of it all—King Arthur and the Round Table, Sir George and the dragon, damsels in distress, knights in shining armor, looming stone castles with ivy-choked turrets where beautiful princesses were held captive…
Whenever I got an afternoon free to play with other kids, somehow we eventually wound up playing knights. The variety of ordinary household items that can serve as an improvised sword or shield is amazing. As the last beleaguered combatants would call a truce at the end of a backyard battle, the field of honor was frequently strewn with trash can lids, pointy sticks, hubcaps fitted with drawer-pull handles, yardsticks, pool cues, pipes, roaster lids, tire irons, sofa cushions, fireplace pokers, and an eyeball or two.
Unfortunately, mothers never appreciate the glory of such things. They always feel compelled to meddle in a boy’s good clean fun. One day the mother of Sir Rory of Boogerhead happened upon our battlefield before we had a chance to clean it up, sort out the eyeballs and return them to their owners. She took one look and fled shrieking back across the drawbridge into the castle where she re-emerged shortly with reinforcements. We rallied our troops and bravely defended our position that day, but, alas, we faced a superior force. The bleak terms of our surrender dictated that for the rest of our lives we were forbidden to participate in any form of play that involved sword fighting, on pain of flogging and banishment to the dungeon without any supper.
As you can imagine, our ability to slay dragons, rescue fair damsels, and fend off the barbarian hordes that threatened our kingdom became significantly curtailed for a while. For a week or so, we desultorily attempted to find something to do, but all efforts proved hollow and meaningless. Our mothers mocked us with sneering suggestions that we play softball, or fly a kite, or play with Legos, or build a model or throw a Frisbee or something, but we steadfastly resisted their efforts to enslave us with such mundane and loathsome tasks.
At length, noble Duke Josh DeDork struck upon a solution to our problem. “Did we not,” quoth he, “but swear to curtail our feats of armes with edged weapons?” That was true. “How now do we then sulk about like whipped curs, sith we be skilled, one and all, in sundry types of weaponrie?” The guy was a genius! Why hadn’t we thought of it before?
Immediately there was a mad rush as knight and footman, squire and knave dove for anything that would not technically qualify as a sword. Moments later, the delicious sound of battle rose once again above the towers of Camelot. The pipe that had been a falchion became a mace. The pool cue that had previously served as a claymore, now smote mightily as a quarterstaff. The poker broadsword was a war hammer. The tire-iron which in days of yore had cloven helm and shield as a barbarian scramasax, now struck fear into the hearts of its enemies when wielded as a spiked cudgel.
Some poet should write an epic about that battle. More blood was spilled, “time-out-no-faired”, and spilled again, than soaked the fields of Agincourt, Crecy, Tours, Towton, Hastings, and Bannockburn combined. Then disaster struck. Above the shouts of battle lust and the pitiful moans of the wounded, came a horrible roar from our flank. Both armies turned as one man to see the massed Mother infantry nearly upon us at full charge. Overcome with terror at the spectacle, I am ashamed to admit that we cast down our weapons and fled the onslaught.
Ruthlessly, the Mother horde hunted us down and drug us from our hiding places, callously ignoring our plaintive wails. Our calls for quarter fell on deaf ears. The retribution they meted upon us was an awful thing to see, but more awful yet to experience. For what seemed like years afterwards, I remained a forgotten, nameless prisoner, wasting away in the Bastille of my room.
When finally liberated, I crept out of my cell, a broken and emaciated husk of a kid. I eventually tracked down a few other survivors of the massacre. They, like I, were but shades of their former selves. The spirit had gone out of them, and I could not persuade them to reconstruct our former exploits.
There was a short-lived period, however, when I thought we might be getting back on track. You see, although we could no longer participate in any sort of melee combat, I was able to create a mild interest among my former comrades in the development of siege weaponry. I was even able to negotiate a truce from the Mother Alliance allowing us to explore the concept purely for “research purposes” for an alleged science project, after swearing that we would not even think of using them on each other.
The catapult proved interesting. When we used it to hurl the neighbor’s cat into the pond, for a moment, I thought I saw the old spark return to my comrades’ eyes. However, we could never catch the cat again, and we only had so many rotten pumpkins in our garden. Once they were used up the novelty faded.
Then there was the trebuchet. It turned out to be a lot more work then we had anticipated, and the first time we tried to use it, we forgot to move Sir Jimmy the Freckles’ Dad’s new toolbox out of the way before the counterweight slammed down and crunched it. That was the end of Sir Jimmy’s participation, and nobody else’s dad would let them use their tools.
In a last desperate gambit, I attempted to build a replica of Archimedes’ Claw. It took a great deal of persuading to convince my friends to help me. Enthusiastically, I regaled them with a riveting historical description of the giant crane swiveling over the walls of Syracuse to let down a grappling hook which snagged the ships of the attacking Roman fleet, capsizing them, legions and all. Their imagination stirred at last, they assisted me. It might have been the beginning of the long trip back to glory and honor if Sir Rory hadn’t blown it.
As I became distracted with some calculations, he let down the grappling hook behind the Marquis de Jerry’s little brother Petey. Then it was that Sir Rory of Boogerhead had the wisdom and foresight to raise it suddenly. The grappling hook caught on the back of Petey’s britches, and hoisted him in the air. It was at just that moment that the Marquis’ mother emerged from the castle to see her baby squalling like a butchered hog as he dangled eight feet in the air by a massive wedgie.
I’m fortunate that I enjoyed reading. It was the only thing that kept me sane in the Bastille for the next twenty-odd years or so. I tried to build a battering ram to break out, but I couldn’t find anything with which to disassemble my bed frame. By the time I emerged, my quests of knight errantry had receded to become vague memories shrouded in the merciful mist of history. I didn’t mind, though. I had developed a new interest in improvised explosives and Viet Cong man traps.