I could quite possibly be voted off the Redroom island, for admitting this, but I’m really not much of a reader. I rarely dive into leather-cushioned comfort and curl up with a good book. Even when I fly, which is frequently, I seldom get more than a few pages into a book before finding other amusements and distractions. Somehow watching a movie over someone’s balding pate while listening on scratchy headphones is more attractive than reading. I’m not against reading, mind you, it just doesn’t come naturally to me. Well, that is, except for short stories. That’s a different matter.
My predilection to abbreviated reading might have something to do with the circumstances of my youth. (And another thing that might get me voted off the isle of Redroom) In order to earn a little pocket change my mother took a part time job. A few blocks away a guy by the name of Cliff and his wife were starting a little business in their basement. They needed someone to help with the bookkeeping and also do some proofreading. My mother’s typing, secretarial and English skills were a good fit. The wee little company produced wee little books. Condensed books really. My mother was allowed to take home her choice of any of the blemished, un-salable copies of the yellow and black striped mini-tomes. Yep, you guessed it, that little basement-based company was named after its founder. It was Cliff’s Notes.
Thus were the seeds of my literary interests planted. Those honeybee colored volumes suited my short attention span. However, even armed with the short versions of the long stories, I must admit I couldn’t quite slog my way through some of the classics. Emma stands out. Having grown up in Lincoln. Nebraska just didn’t adequately prepare me for an appreciation of the nuances of life in the English countryside.
Eventually I found my way. One day a copy of a book was thrust into my hands that would launch me out of the English countryside, past the cornfields of Nebraska and to the land of milk and honey. The name of the book that rocketed me to a new reality has been, alas, lost to a faulty memory. However within the book was a story which would change me forever. It was written by a guy from New York with the first name of Francis. He later dumped the wimpy Francis, took one of the “t’s” out of his middle name and wrote about adventures in California. His name was Bret Hart. He wrote a short story called The Outcasts of Poker Flat.
It was wonderful. It had fallen women, gunslingers, drunks, thieves, virgins. Mostly desperate people. Oh how I reveled in those pages. What joy. To freeze to death in the majestic Sierra Nevada mountains was so much better than swooning in the verdant evergreen hills of England or for that matter, tramping through the gray-brown frozen tundra of Nebraska.
By the time I read the last line of The Outcasts of Poker Flat: “And pulseless and cold, with a Derringer by his side and a bullet in his heart, though still calm as in life, beneath the snow, lay he who was at once the strongest and yet the weakest of the outcasts of Poker Flat.”, I knew it was California for me.
And in December 1968 I piloted my wheezing 1938 Ford through the frozen tundra of Nebraska, over the wind-whipped Rockies and across the vast Big Empty of Utah and Nevada. Then in a blinding snowstorm I sailed over the Sierra not more than a few dozen miles where those outcasts met their fate. To California I came. And in California I stay.