On Christmas morning, 1941, still in the aftershock from Japan’s assault on Pearl Harbor, I unwrapped my first gift, a hardcover book from my mother, “Chad Hanna,” by Walter D. Edmonds.
This novel transported me from the front room of our home in the Tower District of Fresno to the world of a 20-year-old runaway who’d joined a horse-drawn circus along the Erie River in the 1830s.
I was 9 years old, still sad at leaving our former neighborhood in an older, less affluent part of town. We’d be moving again soon, this time to Long Beach, where my father would help build Liberty ships for the war.
I remember clutching my mother’s gift against my chest like it was a test offering from the adult-reading shelves. After reading it with a fever I’d not experienced before, I visited the library downtown to check out Edmonds’ “Drums Along the Mohawk” and “Rome Haul.”
Leaving my Fresno pals would be easier now that Chad Hanna and scores of other characters had pulled me into their lives.
Our new home, a bit cocked from a major earthquake a decade before, was two blocks from the beach. Great, except for the Japanese subs out there.
“They’ll come in at night, kid,” a neighbor warned me. “Pull down those blackout shades in your bedroom, ’less you want a torpedo delivered through it.”
Yes, the war was upon us. Its rush marked the faces of my parents, and it shaded the watchful glances from my sister, Regina, then enrolled in her third high school in two years. I felt it inside my fourth-grade classroom and outside on the play yards, that feeling as if I’d been swept away from my safe life by a force unfathomable.
I counted its victims on the window displays along every street, blue stars for family members in military service, gold for those killed in action.
Its battles blackened the headlines, places new to most of us, or too familiar to believe possible. Guadalcanal and Paris, New Guinea and Prague.
Our big-shouldered Philco spewed its songs into our living room, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” its beat, “I’ll Be Seeing You,” its heart, and the ethereal “Lili Marleen,” sung by Marlene Dietrich, its dark sorrow.
One fortunate day, while wandering the unfamiliar district near Signal Hill, I discovered a used-books store. Just had to follow the train tracks past that big, tough kid throwing those hard railroad rocks at me, and there I stood. That small space smelling of a thousand hushed secrets seduced me before I reached for a single volume.
“First time in?” The proprietor, thin as a shadow, watched me freeze. “You might try Jack London.” He had picked “Call of the Wild” off a crowded shelf.
“I’ve read that one,” I said, hoping he didn’t figure me for a braggart. “But I’d love to see any others you got.”
Others he had. I began to feel welcome, and on my third visit, I left with a book of London’s short fiction, got it home in fine shape despite the rock thrower’s barrage of railroad stones, and that evening I read, “A Piece of Steak.”
First page in, and its protagonist, a grizzled veteran prizefighter, Tom King, grabs me, and I follow him from his apartment in New South Wales – one quick, parting kiss for his wife, Lizzie, this time to break his code of none before a fight – to the Gayety Hall’s boxing square.
In the ring, I feel every blow in his battle with Kid Sandel, a younger boxer on the rise. Then later, on our walk back to Tom’s tenement, I stop to watch him weep into his broken hands. This is how it works, I thought. Characters like Chad Hanna and Tom King belong to you forever.
I still remember walking that strip of railroad tracks to and from that little house of books, empty-handed on my trip there, holding a book or two on the way back. Never did I make the journey with a silent heart. The war loomed above me in the darkening sky of a place still strange to me.
Each time I left home, I seemed to be racing somewhere, trying to reach someplace, hoping to make my destination before nightfall with someone’s story secure in my grip.