Yep, I read about being an “erronort” traveling in a balloon while sitting in a parking lot in my car.
Believe it or not, I read this entire 100+year-old book in my car while waiting for my daughter and my son in school parking lots. What a perfectly ironic way to read a soaring imaginary adventure written by Mark Twain and mostly forgotten about by the American reading public.
My copy of this old book is a 1965 edition published for school libraries of a book written in 1894. It tells the story of how Tom and Huck and Jim steal a ride on a balloon at a town fair from a somewhat mentally unhinged professor of aeronautical science. The balloon, which has space-age travel capabilities due to the professor’s insane genius, takes them on an accidental voyage to Africa.
Of course, the insane professor intends to kill them all, because that’s what insane geniuses do after they prove how genius-y they really are. But as he tries to throw Tom into the Atlantic, he only manages to plunge himself through the sky and down to an unseen fate. The result being a great adventure for the three friends in the sands of the Sahara. They face man-eating lions, mummy-making sandstorms, and a chance to land on the head of the Sphinx.
The entire purpose of this book is to demonstrate Twain’s ability to be a satirical stretcher of the truth, telling jokes and lies through the unreliable narrator’s voice of Huck Finn.
Here is a quoted passage from the book to fill up this review with words and maybe explain just a bit what Twain is really doing with this book;
Notice how I doubled my word count there without typing any of the words myself? Isn’t the modern age wonderful?
But there you have it. This book is about escaping every-day newspaper worries. In a time of Presidential Candidate Donald Trump, global warming, and renewed threats of thermonuclear boo-boos with Russia, this proved to be the perfect book to float away with on an imaginary balloon to Africa. And the book ends in a flash when Aunt Polly back in Hannibal wants Tom back in time for breakfast. I really needed to read this book when I picked it up to read it.
I wish to leave no doubt unturned like a stone that might have treasure hidden under it. I love the works of Samuel L. Clemens, better known as Mark Twain.
I have read and studied his writing for a lifetime, starting with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer which I read for myself in the seventh grade, after seeing the musical movie Tom Sawyer starring Johnny Whittaker as Tom. I caught a severe passion, more serious than a head-cold, for the wit and wisdom with which Twain crafted a story. It took me a while to acquire and read more… but I most definitely did. I took an American Literature course in college that featured Twain, and I read and analyzed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I also bought a copy of Pudd’nhead Wilson which I would later devour in the same thoroughly literate and pretentious manner as I had Huck Finn. Copies of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and The Mysterious Stranger were purchased at the same time, though I didn’t read them cover to cover until later during my years as a middle school English teacher. I should point out, however, that I read and re-read both of those, Connecticut Yankee winning out by being read three times. As a teacher, I taught Tom Sawyer as an in-class novel assignment in the time when other teachers thought I was more-or-less crazy for trying to teach a 100-year-old book to mostly Hispanic non-readers. While the lunatic-inspired experiment was not a total success, it was not a total failure either. Some kids actually liked having me read parts of it aloud to them, and some borrowed copies of the book to reread it for themselves after we finished as a class.
During my middle-school teaching years I also bought and read copies of The Prince and the Pauper, Roughing It, and Life on the Mississippi. I would later use a selection from Roughing It as part of a thematic unit on Mark Twain where I used Will Vinton’s glorious clay-mation movie, The Adventures of Mark Twain as a way to painlessly introduce my kids to the notion that Mark Twain was funny and complex and wise.
I have also read and used some of Twain’s most famous short fictions. “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” and “The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg” are both masterpieces of Twain’s keen insight into the human psyche and the goofy and comic corruptions he finds there.
And now, retired old me is reading Tom Sawyer Abroad. And, though it is not one of his finest works, I still love it and am enthralled. I will review it and share it with you when I am finished. But I will never be through with Mark Twain. Not only is there more of him to read, but he has truly been a life-long friend .
It began in childhood with the Red Skelton Show. Every Wednesday night it a was a refuge for me. And refuge was a critical idea for me. I was a child hiding a terrible secret from the entire world. At times I hated myself. Twice as a teen I came very close to choosing suicide over life. The person I most needed to hide from was myself. And humor helped. Red Skelton’s gentle humor helped me to not only escape from myself for a while, it taught me to laugh at my own foibles and not take things quite so seriously.
In my college years I discovered humor in written form. Mark Twain swiftly earned my utter devotion as I read not only Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, but Roughing It, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Pudd’nhead Wilson, The Mysterious Stranger, and The Autobiography of Mark Twain. You know, there are a large number of things in Mark Twain’s humorous books that make you cry, that make you angry, and make you think deep thoughts. I basically discovered that humor is a way that smart people choose to think of things which helps to keep you sane and basically un-suicided.
A beautiful portrait by artist Emily Stepp
It is obvious that some people become very skilled at humor because they have used it all their lives to fight the darkness . Robin Williams is only few years older than I am. In many ways his life has paralleled my own (obviously minus the wealth and fame in my case… but what would’ve happened if Robin had become a school teacher?) I have depended on Robin Williams’ movies to keep me going, giving me insights in how to talk to kids, how to be a parent, and how to empathize with others. Of course, I haven’t yet taken some of his movie advice. I never put on a mask and a dress to deceive my own children. But only time will tell.
I obsess about humor and how you create it. I gorge on things like the works of Dave Barry. Do you know who he is? Florida newspaper columnist who writes books about everyday life and the fools who live it? I have to do a post on Dave Barry, because he makes me laugh so hard that milk shoots out of my nose, sometimes when I am not even drinking milk… believe me, I don’t know how that works either.
A bust of Herman Munster
Doofy Fuddbugg here is an example of what a “Nolt” is.
I love to laugh. It makes the world right again. I have laughed an awful lot for almost an entire lifetime now. I treasure all the funny people I have known. And I need to continue to try to make people laugh up until the very end. Because the world is too often not a funny place. It can be full of badness and sadness and suffering. And as Mark Twain so aptly pointed out, “Against the assault of laughter… nothing can stand.”
Last night I watched again Part I of Ken Burns’ Mark Twain. I think it reminds me of who I am as a writer. No, I am not being all big-head arrogant and full of myself. I devoured certain writers as a youth, consumed them whole. Charles Dickens was my first passion, followed by J.R.R. Tolkien, and then Mark Twain. Of all of them, Samuel Clemens is the most like me. He was from the Midwest, born and raised in Missouri along the Mississippi River. I am from the Midwest, born and raised in Iowa along the Iowa River. He endured hardship and tragedy as a youth, losing his little brother in a riverboat accident, and he dealt with it by humor. I endured a sexual assault from an older boy, and dealt with it by… well, you get the picture. We are alike, him and I. We both draw upon the place we grew up, the people we have known, and the events of our youth to create stories.
It is a pretty big responsibility to follow in his footsteps, and I will probably never live to see the success and the wealth that came to him. But I have a responsibility to the people I knew and the time that gave rise to me to tell their story. I need to build a network of stories that resonate the truth of existence that I have been witness to. A big responsibility… and I probably will not live up to it. But I have to try.
Being a writer is somewhat like being cursed. The words burn inside, needing to get out, needing to be heard. I have stories that need to be told, and they will be told, even if only to file away in the closet again. Like Mark Twain, I am good at feeling sorry for myself. And the Mickey part of me, the writer part of me, is just like Mark Twain, a writer persona, and not the real man himself. I am simply the container for something that has to exist and has to tell stories. It is not a bad thing to be. But the more I get to know it, the more I would not wish the destiny on others.
Forgive how sad and bunglingly boorish this post is. But sometimes there are thoughts I simply have to think. And as a writer, I am bound to write down the silly things that I think.
Yes, yes, I know it is supposed to be Ray Bradbury, not berry. But now that the master has gone, I don’t want to think of him as bury which is too grave a term. He was a master of metaphor and rhythm and image in writing. His work is much more berry-flavored, and if you really intensively read a novel like Dandelion Wine, you can very easily get drunk on the richly fermented contents of his beautiful writing.
angel by Adolphe-William Bouguereau (1825-1905)
I’d like to offer you a piece of my mind,
Though not a lecture, rant, or complaint,
But rather a piece of mental pie.
Its taste will be very sweet, you will find,
As I’m constantly thinking in ink and paint,
That gives you wings and allows you to fly.
You see, I think the literary mind does not have to sink to mundane and dark and dreary thoughts and ideas to accomplish lofty goals. Often it is the special dollop of sugary metaphorical conceit that makes a Ray Bradbury or Mark Twain or Kurt Vonnegut to soar through the astral plane of ideas. I know that’s cartoony thinking, and somewhat loony besides, but I am often frustrated when it seems that the only “realism” modern readers and audiences accept is what is gritty and bloody and depressingly painful. Oh, I get it. Douglas nearly dies in the course of Dandelion Wine. Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and Billy Pilgrim all suffer as much as we laugh in order to make their points in the novels they inhabit. But the misfortune makes the moment of taking flight that much sweeter. And it is in the language. The loving description of everyday things and everyday events that become extraordinary through extra-close examination. Sometimes silliness and humor and logical reason are not enough, and we have to speak in poetry. We put in metaphors as peaches and plums. Sensory details are raspberries and strawberries. Sing-song rhythms and elegant pacing makes the batter whole and delicious. And I know this whole post makes no earthly sense. But sometimes you write for earthly reasons… and sometimes you try to reach heaven. That is what Ray Bradberry Pie is made of.
There comes a time in every career when the career is over and it has to end. I spent 310 years teaching in Middle School and High School and loved every minute of it. (Okay, divide the years by ten and subtract about twelve thousand minutes from the love… but I did love it.) And I was good at it. (At least, in my own confused little mind… I have photographic proof that I did help students get some quality sleep time in, but… hey, English is supposed to be boring.)
A year ago I was forced to make the decision to leave the job I loved. Failing health and failing finances made it increasingly hard to do the job. I was never a sit-behind-the-desk teacher. I had to do the dance… up this row, down that one… lean over the spit-wad shooter before he could adequately aim and pull the stray cafeteria straw out of his mouth… suggest the verb needs to have an “s” on it if the subject of the sentence the student just wrote for me is singular… stand in front of the boy who can’t listen to my wonderful teaching because the girl across the room is wearing a dress and block his view… and he doesn’t even like that girl, but she’s wearing a dress… you can see her legs… and he’s a teenager… you know, the dance of teaching. When you walk with a cane and have a back brace on every single work day, the dance becomes harder and harder as the year wears on. I got to spend my days with Mark Twain and Kurt Vonnegut and Maya Angelou and Robert Frost… and even more important I got to spend my days with Pablo and Sofie and Ruben and Rita and Keith… I had so many more favorite students than I ever had those black-banes-of-a-teacher’s-existence kids that other teachers were always talking about in the faculty lounge. (I rarely hung out in the faculty lounge because they tended to talk bad about kids I really loved and enjoyed teaching… and besides, I had crap to actually do before the next class came in. Lounging was rarely an option.)
I confess that I have spent a good deal of this school year depressed and feeling sorry for myself. No kids to talk to on a daily basis except my own, and even with them, only after school. My wife is still teaching… so I rarely see her. (Am I married? I need to double-check.) I fill the lonely hours with writing and story-telling and recollections of days past… and I am beginning to come to terms with my loss. In retirement I can do more of the things that I always wanted to do… but never had time for. I can draw and paint and write and sing (pray hard I don’t start posting videos of me singing!) and play with my toys… I have even decided to write a novel about people playing with toys. Would I ever teach again if suddenly I was healthy and could do it again…? YOU BETTER BELIEVE I WOULD!
Mark Twain, real name Samuel Clemens, is my hero. He lived a long and difficult life, but he lived it with grace and humor… most of the time…well, some of the time. I would very much like to be just like him… ‘cept I ain’t dead yet and have no plans on that score… but I would like to also be like him in having something important to say that can be said to somebody who isn’t even born yet, a hundred years or more from now, the way that Mark Twain spoke to me.
Here is an old pencil drawing from 1980. It shows MT as an observer of all that country cornpone stuff that makes up his humor and written genius. It also shows the loyal dog that would dearly love to get his teeth into that piece of chicken.