On Learning To Read

Ava, Doug, and I rolled into the trailer park early this morning in Doug’s 1975 Ford pickup. Earlier Saturday evening I had been eating a fine meal and playing music at Rob and Cindy’s place south of town, a combined social gathering and band practice. The musical energies were waning when I got a phone call from Ava.

“Larry, are you coming to the drive-in with us? Doug and I made popcorn, and we have cold cream sodas!”

I’d been wanting to go sometime to that drive-in movie establishment, which is located a few miles south of Barry, in Pike County, Illinois. I gave Doug directions to Rob and Cindy’s rural home, and after playing a few more tunes with my musical cronies, I gathered up my instruments and waited by the gravel road.

It was a pleasant night for a drive. With both pickup windows open, the three of us eventually arrived at the drive-in, probably the only one still in business within a radius of two hundred miles. Fifty or sixty pickups were lined up before the screen and people had brought lawn chairs and blankets. It was a real slice of Midwestern life. Unlike the window-mounted speakers I remember from my youth, the audio at this theater is broadcast on an open FM channel and can be heard on the vehicles’ radios.

Doug sat in a folding chair in the bed of the pickup, Ava reclined on a cushioned mat atop the truck’s transverse toolbox, while I sprawled out on the tailgate with a pillow against the pickup bed’s side.

All three of us snoozed from time to time. The movies were of the sort which don’t demand undivided attention. I spent some time gazing up at the brilliant stars, trying to identify constellations. Cygnus, the Northern Cross, was directly overhead, as always accompanied by that sportive trapezoidal dolphin Delphinus. I tried to locate that beautiful arc of stars known as Corona Borealis but never did make it out.

Bear with me, kind readers. I admit I have a tendency to approach post subjects tangentially. There is an admittedly tenuous connection between the above account of watching cinematic stories and the following tales of early experiences reading stories.

It occurs to me that a possible reason for the enduring popularity of the personal memoir genre is that a writer’s recollections can bring to the surface neglected memories of the reader’s. An example from my own experience follows.

A passage from Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir Speak, Memory caused to slowly rise to the surface of my mind some memories of my own. Here’s the passage, Nabokov writing of some childhood experiences:

I learned to read English before I could read Russian. My first English friends were four simple souls in my grammar — Ben, Dan, Sam, and Ned. There used to be a great deal of fuss about their identities and whereabouts — “Who is Ben?” “He is Dan,” “Sam is in bed,” and so on. Although it all remained rather stiff and patchy (the compiler was handicapped by having to employ — for the initial lessons, at least — words of not more than three letters), my imagination somehow managed to obtain the necessary data. Wan-faced, big-limbed, silent nitwits, proud of the possession of certain tools (“Ben has an axe”), they now drift with a slow-motioned slouch across the remotest backdrop of memory; and, akin to the mad alphabet of an optician’s chart, the grammar-book lettering again looms before me.


…On later pages longer words appeared, and at the very end of the brown, inkstained volume, a real, sensible story unfolded its adult sentences (One day Ted said to Ann: Let us –“), the little reader’s ultimate triumph and reward. The magic has endured, and whenever a grammar book comes my way, I instantly turn to the last page to enjoy a forbidden glimpse of the laborious student’s future, of that promised land where, at last, words are meant to mean what they mean.

This Nabokovian memory caused my recollection engine to rev up. I thought back to my first grade experiences at Wright School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Back then the Dick and Jane readers were still in use, but the stories were so rudimentary that it was hard to stay interested — “See Spot run” may have been one of the more exciting passages. I really wanted to learn to read. My parents were readers and there was alway an abundance of reading material around the house. I made efforts to try to make sense of books I’d pick up but I just didn’t have the necessary vocabulary.

By the time I entered second grade I had come across an old edition of Collodi’s Pinocchio, and it was almost comprehensible. I struggled with this book but certain words threw me for a loop. One word in particular puzzled me to no end. What could a “tawn-goo” be? Each character seemed to possess one, and from what I could deduce the word referred to a part of the body, possibly located on the head.

Finally I asked my mother. “Look at this word, Mom! I keep reading it and I can’t figure out what it is!”

My mother laughed. “Larry, it’s pronounced “tung”! She stuck out her tongue at me and suddenly I realized that English spelling could be quite illogical.

I eventually finished Pinocchio and heaved a sigh of relief.

Towards the end of second grade the reader stories became more interesting. I had checked out a book from the class library shelves and, for the first time, became totally engrossed in a written story. The book was about a family on vacation and I just slurped it down. After I read the final page I was overwhelmed with a desolate feeling. I had invested quite a fund of attention, identification, and imagination in the adventures of that fictional family, and now I was left hanging. What happened next? Will I ever meet these fascinating characters again? In a way they had seemed more real than the flesh-and-blood people in my life. This was my first experience of the power of the written word.


17 comments on “On Learning To Read

  1. Joan says:

    Wow! Two great narratives Larry. What a fun weekend! I remember the Sky Hi drive in in Hannibal even had a playground area for right before dusk.

    I guess I was very lucky because I already had a library of colorful (albeit cheaply made) kid books before I hit first grade. They were artfully arranged in a jumbled pile on the bottom drawer of my dresser. (Even back then I had more books than clothes.) My mother had read to me from the time I could sit still long enough, and I guess I may have memorized a lot of the passages. I could write my name, and laboriously copy something someone else had written, but I had little to no idea what the letters meant.

    I could have waited until the Second Coming to learn about numbers. (And still could) but I could not wait to learn to read. Dick, Jane, and Spot’s one syllable story of the basket of upended leaves was my Rosetta stone. Far from being put off by the banality of the stuff, I was so thrilled I wanted to take the book home. We could not. “Homework’ was not allowed in first grade. I do not remember when I really truly learned to read with some degree of fluency, but I do remember that each time we got an upgrade on our books, that I read through to the end. The ‘upgrades’ were fairly often, as the first books were large print and soft cover. I remember what a total thrill it was to finally get the actual hardcover book. (And we still couldn’t take it home.)

    Now I do not have Larry’s photographic memory, (and lately I am led to believe that my memory is writ in disappearing ink,) but for some glorious reason it was easy for me to read. Spelling, as you might have figured out by now… not so much. (Grin) I claim that it’s because sounding out words in the English language does not always produce anything resembling the word. However, the words and the vocabulary were easy enough to memorize (short term) and it all worked. Thank you, thank you Mrs. Ashburn, first grade teacher, who talk me to read, and pffft! To Mrs. Richmond, second grade teacher, who taught me how much a sharp ruler smack on the palm did to curb intellectual curiosity.

    BTW Larry, I got by just fine on Disney’s kid version of Pinocchio..and it was a lot less scary than the movie. I could have done without being told that my nose was growing every time I ’embellished’ a story to my parents, though. 🙂

  2. penstemon says:

    Joan, your account of not being allowed to “take home” books reminds me of an incident on the last day I was in second grade. I had become quite fond of my desk, one of those sturdy metal-framed school-desks with the flip-up writing surface. The top seemed to be made of what looked like blonde oak. On that last day of school I asked my teacher “When do we get to take our desks home?”

    As far as I was concerned that desk was mine forever.

    The teacher suppressed a snort of amusement and said “Oh, Larry, you can’t take your desk home! A new second-grader will need it next school year!”

    What a raw deal, I thought! That was when I learned of the provisional nature of the word “my” when applied to institutional property.

  3. Joan says:

    Oh, Larry, that is just priceless! And, you are so right. They continually referred to it as ‘your desk’. “This will be ‘your desk’ for the year.” (unless you talked too much as I did and had to be moved.) We never met with this confusion, however because our desks were bolted to the floor. They didn’t take any chances of us ‘taking’ anything at all home. 🙂

  4. Paul Lamb says:

    I’m glad they weren’t cold-cream sodas.

  5. penstemon says:

    Paul, that lack of a hyphen made all of the difference in the perceived meaning of the sentence. The very idea of a carbonated drink made from cold cream is quite repugnant. Against my will images of other soft drinks made from cosmetics and skin emollients occur to me … how’d you like a tall cold glass of cola — with aloe vera, ginseng, and vitamin E? Or a mascara float…

  6. joan says:

    First of all.. Haha! And also ewww! I guess one should hyphenate cold cream . I always thought it to be all one word or two words.. But then I thought ‘cole slaw’ was ‘cold slaw’ for about 20 years, and Sherbet was ‘sherbert’.
    Well, I know I’m gonna get creamed for expanding on this subject, but…… We used to make a soda out of ice cream and coke. It was called a Brown Cow. Now, extrapolating on that, why couldn’t you make a soda from Cream soda (pop) and ice cream. A Cream Cream soda. I’m assuming it would be cold, or the mess would just melt…so you’d end up drinking a cold cream cream soda.

  7. bill says:

    Yeah, if your desolated it’s powerful.

  8. joan says:

    To Larry:

    I’m glad that you are thriving in your brand new digs.
    A wonderful improvement over living with the pigs.
    You’re making lots of music, and you’re busy as a bee
    And you’re helping out your buddies which is really always key.
    Hey! I saw there was a bad flash flood in Hannibal this week
    But we haven’t heard about it on the blog here. Not a squeak.
    It seems a strange paralysis has happened to the blog
    The wheels of creativity have now sustained a cog
    You are having so much fun that now the blog is not the same
    So I’m wondering if blogging is much better when there’s pain.

  9. penstemon says:

    We’re having more flooding rains tonight, and some residents of the trailer park have fled. It’s just kinda distracting…

  10. Joan says:

    Yikes! I spent about 6 plus hours at my son’s house and came home to this new bad news e-mailed to me by some Hannibal friends. Let us know how you are doing. Sorry abut the quip about pain. Was joiingly referring to the pain of your former living arrangements with the fab three, surely did not anticipate that this flood would re-appear. We have had nothing in our area but a weak sprinkle of rain.
    They talked about lifting the dams in Bear Creek in the Hannibal paper. This was supposed to avoid future flash flooding. Heard anything?

  11. joan says:

    In re: “On Learning To Read”
    (7 days later)

    We are glad you learned to read
    But right now here’s what we need,
    A new post would be a very welcome sight.
    Although reading is just fine,
    Still I hope you do not mind
    If right now we really want to see you write.

  12. Darrell says:

    I heard a news item late last week that I haven’t verified: that boys have now significantly fallen behind girls in reading skills in all states. This seems to be trend that’s been going on for a while. Apparently it’s like pulling teeth to get boys to read now. Funny thing, when I was at Eugene Field, I thought I was thee only guy there who read much at all. One of my pals would read an occasional Zane Grey story, but that was it.

    Anyone remember the men’s fiction magazines like Argosy and True? They are long gone now. At least some were reading once-upon-a-time.

    I saw a fall 2009 copy of the resurrected Saturday Evening Post today, and they were proud of the fact they were running a Ray Bradbury story, shades of the ’40’s and ’50’s.

  13. Joan says:

    I can’t imagine why that is, Darrell Do you think the advent of video games and endless cable TV. opportunities plus the net has affected boys more than girls? Could it be that it’s not macho to be seen reading?. I can’t fathom it. Did they list any particular reason for this? What a sad thing. I remember when boys were targeted for everything because of the big push in science. Now we have Texas school board members trying to subvert the science curriculum.

    I remember those men’s magazines but I never read them. They were all there at Washburn’s drugstore along with the comics. We subscribed to Time, Life, and Sat. Eve. Post at home , so I didn’t have to read those down there at the store. (grin)

    I didn’t know the Sat. Evening Post ever ran a Bradbury story in the 50’s. I got all my sci fi from the Hannibal Public Library Science Fiction Anthologies. What a windfall!! I loved those things. Still do. Much better than sci fantasy.

  14. Darrell says:

    Why boys don’t . . .? Don’t know why, altho I have plenty of theories. According to the radio feature, it was easy to get them to read a story called ‘Sweet Farts” because they liked the theme. Apparently, there is little interest in content. However, the Eternal Geeks will still be out there . . and will probably profit at the decreasing number of potential competitors out there.

    “Texas School Board members? Science? Can’t say. But remember that “science” can be as big a bastion to error as a 14th century witches coven. However I did applaud the effort by the Texas textbook selection group to restore some sanity and truth to textbooks.

    Sounds like we subscribed to the same magazines.

    RE Ray . . . I misspoke; he is on the Sat. Eve. Post’s fiction board now. And he did sell a story to Mademoiselle in 1946. I want to say he sold story to Sat Eve Post in the early ’50’s that Hollywood turned into “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms”. And some of his stories were comverted into tales by EC Comics in the earlier ’50’s.

    Ditto on the Bradbury books at HPL . . did you ever read the April Witch? . . . As for sci-fi fantasy, maybe it has gone stale because only so much fantasy is possible? Unreality is a smallish planet? Whereas history and the contemporary scene has the whole universe open before them? Indeed I read some months back that sci-fi-fantasy is dying, and being replaced increasingly by “alternative history”??

  15. Joan says:

    I don’t recall The April Witch…but that is not to say I have not read it. (grin) I just got about 30 pages into a book I’d read about 10 years back before I realized I’d already read it. Not to worry. I couldn’t recall the ending anyway.

    Alternative history? You mean like Cloud Atlas? Or like maybe parallel universes? Or like the movie Inglorious Basterds?

    On the subject of witches.. I don’t believe science is quite that much prone to error, but if it is, I hope the scientists don’t reach the same fate as many witches.

    Ahhh The Eternal Geeks. Where would we be without them?. I know I’d be without entertainment. I just asked my eldest about ads for Comic-Con (sp?) and had it grown from traders of comic books to a huge huge extravaganza with reeelly big stars now..and games and gadgets and movies oh my! He said a friend of his referred to it as a nerd gasm.

    I can’t get used to the cross pollination of books and electronics quite yet. If I drop my paperback in the sink, it’s easier to replace than a Kindle.
    Even if I could afford a Kindle in the first place.

  16. Darrell says:

    Alternative history has been around for a while. I recall a Life (?) Magazine series in the late ’50’s early ’60’s titled “If the South Had Won the Civil War” . . also another based on the supposition that the Axis had won WW2. BUT when wou think about it, almost all historical fiction is an alternative history? Speaking of Braqdbury, didn’t he write ashort story that morphed into an EC comics fantasy tale called “The Coin” in which a man attempting suicide finds a strange looking from a century in the future . . . and his picture is on it? Needless to say, he decides to stick around to discover just why he will be on future coinage. Inglorius Bastards? Haven’t seen it yet, and the local video store folded.

    If a scientist end up in the hot seat, betcha it’ll be another scientist flippin’ the switch?

    “Nerd gasm”? So that’s what they call it? Uh, what’s a Kindle? I used to use Kindall Oil when I was at HHS and HLG . . . but that’s not it, right?

  17. Joan says:

    It’s an E-reader . Here’s a Kindle:

    Word is prices are plummeting, altho I have not seen it. They want to sell the device cheaper so people will buy in and buy their books on-line to download.

    Inglorious Basterds (that pains me to spell it that way) was available awhile back at the Redbox Kiosks at most all McDonald Restaurants for a dollar a day. Lately the pickings seem thin here locally but it’s worth a try. At least you can call up that or Blockbuster kiosks on-line and see what is checked out before you leave home and waste the time.

    Oh..I don’t know about scientists wanting to off other scientists.. I suspect some very religious persons are wishing for their demise, even now. The are tried their best to get Darwin out of the schoolbooks, and he’s already dead.

    In re “The Coin”. Hmmm . Looks like another story I would like to re-read or read for the first time. I sure missed the DC comix version. (grin)

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