When I was 12, my favorite novel was Rudyard Kipling’s First Jungle Book. I loved it. From page one to the last sentence of the story about the White Seal. I owned a paperback copy that I still have 45 years later. I bought it from the school book order form, Scholastic, I think. I used my allowance money, earned at a nickel a week. Along with the chapter books I had read previously, The Swiss Family Robinson, the White Stag, and Treasure Island, it guided my view of life. Every grove and forest in Iowa became the jungle in the summer of 1968. The windswept fields of corn and soy beans easily transformed into tropical seas. I imagined pirates, natives, and buried treasures everywhere. When I found a piece of a brass candlestick with the necessary curved part, which became the cursed Ahnk from The Jungle Book. Midnight, Grandma Aldrich’s blue-eyed black cat, became my Bagheera. I traveled with an invisible Baloo. You know, it was only a year or so before that when I saw the Disney movie. So, of course, dancing and singing was a part of being a jungle boy.
In the book, unlike the movie, Mowgli was naked in the jungle. He didn’t wear clothes until the first time he submitted himself to the man village. He took them off again when he escaped. I had to try that too. I went to the BinghamPark woods down by the Iowa River. I found a tree where I could put my clothes, and I took everything off. I figured roaming the woods like Mowgli would be great. Boy, I was a stupid child. Problem number one struck with my first naked step in the forest. Dang! There must not be any twigs or nettles in Mowgli’s jungle. I tried hopping from place to place, but in minutes I was wearing at least my socks and shoes. Hanging branches and brambles were a problem, too. They clutched at me, striping me with welts and scrapes. Certain parts you just don’t want pricked by a bramble bush. It was like God suddenly planted those pointed things everywhere. Okay, shoes and socks and shorts. Well, then I began to get cold. Iowa is never very warm even in the height of summer. I had already defeated the whole naked in the forest thing when I put my shorts back on, so, what the heck! It just didn’t work like I thought.
I still believed that the ways of the jungle were an essential part of my young life. I read and reread what the Jungle Book says about the “Law of the Jungle”. I tried to make sense of it as a credo to live by. Of course, at twelve we are always among the wisest and all-knowing of God’s creatures. We can make sense of the world in our own weird little way, and no one will ever be able to sway us from the philosophy we live by, no matter how silly it is. I still think about my “Jungle Book Period” as an important part of my young life. There are things about young Mowgli and Jim Hawkins and the Robinsons that formed a significant part of my character. I would one day make use of those determined and resourceful qualities to stay alive in the classroom jungles of South Texas. I tried to make others see it. I shared Kipling and Stevenson with kids and hoped that I could make them learn, as I did, how to be that little boy facing and succeeding against the dangerous jungle around him.