First published in The Batesville Daily Guard, December 7, 2016
Growing up on a mini storage compound in the middle of nowhere was a lonely experience for me as a child. There were no kids other than my sister for miles. School got out at 3:15, and the bus delivered me to our house by 4:30. Summers were even worse, because entire days were filled with … nothing.
We were not well-off financially, so I didn’t exactly have toys. Our television had exactly three channels and it pretty much always stayed on adult stuff like soap operas or the news. The only thing I had to play with was a telephone pole across the dirt road from our house trailer.
I would spend hours every day throwing all different sizes and shapes of rocks at it. Overhand, sidearm, left hand, right hand. It was the enemy and I was a soldier bent on destroying it. I became quite a crack-shot from different distances and angles. I had no way of knowing this at the time, but this would serve me well years later when I became an actual soldier and the Army called on me to throw hand grenades. As sad as all of this may sound, there simply wasn’t much else to do with my time or my imagination.
Things at school weren’t going much better — at first. I was the only kid in my first-grade class that couldn’t read when the school year started. I was new to that school and my previous one didn’t really emphasize that particular skill for kindergarteners. The playdough and sand tables weren’t using themselves, so we were bent to those tasks rather than to academics. I also had a bad lisp at that age, so I was evaluated for special needs education and speech therapy. School counselors held me out of class quite a bit for various reasons. Things were looking kind of grim for me.
Changing schools turned out to be a God-sized miracle. I had teachers that actually took the time to work with me, and that school had counselors who thought my time was better served being taught rather than being isolated from the other kids. Both the instruction and the social interaction radically changed me as a person. By the end of first grade I went from being the only kid in class who couldn’t read his own name to being the only kid in class trucking down the hall every afternoon to take reading lessons in the third-grade classroom.
This new success sparked a true love for reading that I had never felt for anything else. Once I discovered that I could read, I couldn’t stop. I had plenty of time to do it, since there was no one to play with outside of school. This is where my new mom’s parents finally formed a bond with me.
My grandparents had boxes and boxes of books in their garage, their study, their attic. There were books in every place they could be without being tripped over. Mom and her siblings grew up reading everything they could get their hands on, and my grandparents kept every book they ever brought home. I discovered that same passion for reading one weekend when we went to visit. I saw a box of books in the garage and started sifting through them. We were at their house for two days and no one heard a peep out of me, which anyone who knows me will vouch for being quite unusual. By the time we left, I had read eight books and wanted — needed — more. I read The Happy Hollisters, The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew (don’t tell the girls I read those, though), and several others.
As we were leaving, Grandmother asked my dad to pop the trunk of his car. She grabbed another large box of books I hadn’t even touched yet and dumped it in the back. She gave me a wink and told me that should tide me over until they came to see us in a few weeks. When they came to see us, she brought three more boxes.
It would be 31 years before I would throw another rock at that telephone pole.