As I’ve mentioned in an earlier chapter, Mom and Pa have owned since the early 1970s a complete, thirty-volume set of the Encyclopedia Americana, including five supplemental volumes: A Treasury of American Literature Volumes I and II, A Treasury of the World’s Great Speeches, A Treasury of the Essay, The Home Book of Musical Knowledge, and The Complete Works of Shakespeare – Kittredge Players Illustrated Edition; a ten-volume The Book of Popular Science by Grolier; and an alphabetical, four-volume medical encyclopedia set.
No matter where we moved, this massive home reference library would travel with us, crisscrossing the Pacific Ocean and the continental United States, from Taiwan to Illinois to South Carolina to Guam and, finally, to Texas. No matter where we lived, my parents housed it in the living room wall unit/curio cabinet, always regarding these books as home decoration when not in use and then as homework help for their kids later on.
As our parents intended, these books would become a massive help to me and my siblings when completing middle school and (later) high school research assignments, especially when we couldn’t get to a library in the years Pa was stationed elsewhere, Mom was pulling double-shifts working as a hospital cook and then dietary supervisor, and I was too young to drive. However, in all the years we’ve had these books, I’ve never seen my parents actually read them.
My family, for the most part, was not a book reading family. While Mom and Pa would sing us kids to sleep, they never read us a bedtime story. While Mom and Pa sometimes bought self-help books (usually about personal finances or dealing with stress) and Pa had a small but well-used collection of cookbooks, they weren’t fiction book readers, preferring their fiction delivered through movies and TV shows. In fact, by the time I was in my own bedroom in eighth grade, my family had a TV in every bedroom in addition to the living room, and at least one TV would be on as long as somebody was in the house.
In other words, my family was a TV-watching family.
So, in late November 1986, I was stunned – absolutely flabbergasted – when Pa came home from his tour in Diego Garcia hauling, among his few possessions, a copy-paper sized box filled to the brim with paperback novels.
“Did you read all these, Pa?” I asked, marveling at his collection.
“Yes – at least twice. Sometimes more.”
“Really?” I couldn’t help sounding surprised. “Why?”
He laughed. “Because the only TV channel reception we could get was a grainy Hindi channel that seemed to play some version of the Mahabharata or Ramayana every two hours, all the young guys seemed to only want to watch movies like Porky’s and Revenge of the Nerds, and when it rained, the land disappeared so we were stuck together inside. I had to do something so I wouldn’t go crazy.”
“Can I read your books, Pa?” I asked, picking up one of them. It was Robert B. Parker’s Early Autumn.
“Sure.” He nodded to the whole box. “You can have them, if you want.”
Over the next months, as I adjusted to being a high school freshman, my siblings went to different schools, Mom worked long hours at the hospital, and Pa was at his next duty station at the Naval Construction Battalion Center in Gulfport, Mississippi, supporting the Seabees, I read all of Pa’s books.
Pa’s taste in fiction was eclectic but entirely masculine. He had Westerns from Louis L’Amour, which I read just to be thorough but never really got into – perhaps because I wasn’t really into the Western genre to begin with, whether in book or movie form. It was even worse when I read Pa’s Clive Cussler action-adventures novels – lots of overcomplicated plotlines and subplots with lengthy, descriptions that didn’t seem to add anything to the story. Also, Cussler’s characters, even main characters, were so one-dimensional and the women characters were so James Bond-esque girly that I found myself skimming the pages.
It was different when I read Pa’s Cold War spy and military thrillers. Perhaps because I was a Cold War kid with a father who disappeared for months on end on behalf of the US Navy, I found this genre fascinating. Two books rise above from my murky memory: I liked the unpredictable nature of Robert Ludlum’s The Osterman Weekend – especially since it was from the point of view of an unsuspecting civilian who becomes a reluctant hero. Much later, I would buy with my own money Ludlum’s comedic thrillers The Road to Gandolfo and The Road to Omaha because of that same unsuspecting Everyman-turned-reluctant-hero character, which really appealed to me.
However, I really got into Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October because it gave me an inside view of the US Navy and Soviet Navy as well as demystified that scary thing called the Soviet Union – Soviet Russia wasn’t just this monolithic juggernaut on the other side of the planet with its nuclear weapons aimed at us. There were cracks in that juggernaut, and those cracks were real, thinking people like Marko Ramius.
In fact, I became a pretty big fan of Tom Clancy all through high school, checking out of my school library Red Storm Rising, Patriot Games, The Cardinal of the Kremlin, and Clear and Present Danger as soon as those publications arrived, which I suppose was rather unusual for a teenage girl to do. In fact, I would get in trouble (again) for reading a book when the teacher had already started class: this time, it was Patriot Games in Mr. Pederson’s Computer Math.
“Sorry, Mr. Pederson.”
While I read a fair number of crime novels from Pa’s collection, only one resonated with me: Robert B. Parker’s Early Autumn. Of course, Spenser: For Hire was on TV at the time, but I didn’t connect the two at the time. What drew me to read the book over and over again was the story of a complicated yet self-assured man becoming a teacher and father figure to a lost boy who must learn to grow up much too soon. I admired Spenser, who could cook meals without recipes, do carpentry, read and quote literature, treat a lady right, and fight when necessary. Here’s a sample of the guru-like wisdom of Spenser from Early Autumn:
“Reality is uncertain. Lot of people need certainty. They look around for the way it’s supposed to be. They get television-commercial view of the world. Businessmen learn the way businessmen are supposed to be. Professors learn the way professors are supposed to be. Construction workers learn how construction workers are supposed to be. They spend their lives trying to be what they’re supposed to be and being scared they aren’t. Quiet desperation.”
I also admired Paul Giacomin, the lukewarm, neglected fifteen-year-old whose trust in Spenser allowed him to learn how to be a man, which included being okay with crying and following his dream of becoming a dancer.
It was in Early Autumn that I learned the word “autonomous” and realized that that was what Mom and Pa was trying to teach me on how to be, not just someday but now – when “now” meant when I was still in high school, like Paul.
On a similar vein, Pa had a disproportionately large science fiction collection that featured idiosyncratic characters who use their individual skills and talents to solve seemingly impossible problems that come their way. Among his sci-fi books, one particular author that I saw again and again was Robert A. Heinlein. Pa had a lot of Heinlein novels: Starship Troopers. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Stranger in a Strange Land. Time Enough for Love. The Cat Who Walks through Walls. The Notebooks of Lazarus Long.
Most of these books flew right above my head at the time, and I was often mightily embarrassed with all the free-for-all sex that was described here and there, although it fit the story and the characters, so I wouldn’t call it gratuitous. As a storyteller, Heinlein can give strong, confusing stuff, especially for a fourteen year old reader. But the freedom of an individual to make, follow through, and live with one’s choices, often in spite of what one’s society dictated was sensible and right in order to lead oneself and others – that was a message that I got.
This message was what tied all of Pa’s masculine, crazy quilt of books together – of autonomy and the leadership that flows out of that autonomy. And that’s how I learned more about my dad’s personal philosophy in a cardboard box of books than in my previous fourteen years of being his daughter.
Even though I read Pa’s books, not once did Pa and I discuss what were in those books. Maybe it was just too awkward, what with the often adult themes in his books and him being my dad. Instead, we did things together that seemed to reflect Pa’s books when Pa came home on the weekends from Gulfport.
He taught me how to do basic car maintenance like check and top off fluids, check the air in the tires, and change a tire.
He showed me how to use hand tools and do basic home repair (which led to my love of watching This Old House and New Yankee Workshop on PBS).
When I was learning how to drive, he showed me how to read a map and how to get unlost when driving around.
He taught me how to make tasty meals from whatever was in the kitchen, often watching cooking shows like Yan Can Cook and Home Grown with Justin Wilson.
He showed me how to read a manual so that I could upgrade a desktop computer, put together a gas grill, assemble furniture, and record movies and TV programs with a VHS tape machine.
He taught me that singing or listening to music while doing tough things made the doing feel easy.
He showed me how to move furniture without killing myself – “Use your legs!”
Pa was in Gulfport from late 1986 to early 1989, nearly three years when he would miss a large part of our family’s daily life. So Pa taught me all of those things because, seeing me as the oldest child, he needed assurance that everybody would be safe and happy when he was gone. Before he would leave for Gulfport on Sunday, he always said, “I depend on you. Help your mom. Help your brother and sisters.”
“Okay, Pa,” I would always reply.
Returning on the weekends, Pa kept his early morning PT (physical training), and sometimes I would join him. We’d go to NAS Dallas, park next to one of the less-used airstrips, and jog around the perimeter, as the mist would rise up from the nearby Mountain Creek Lake and then the sunlight would burn all of that off. When a jet took off, we would stop, admiring it as it screamed down the runway and took flight.
We wouldn’t talk, just jog, and I’d only hear the sounds of our breathing and our sneakered feet hit the concrete perimeter road. It was on those jogs that I would notice that Pa wasn’t all that much taller than I was – I stopped growing at 5’2”, and Pa was 5’4”. It always surprised me because, in my head, Pa was always a big man.
In many respects, he still is.