The Illinois summer heat and humidity clamped down over Chicago's West Side like a damp electric blanket. Ozone filled the air with the promise of lightning. Gunmetal clouds brooded, purple with bad intent. Merrimac Street was still. No baseball today. Aunt Rose said it was polio season.
I had already read Neville Shute's On the Beach and Seven Days in May over the summer of 1963 -- or was it '64? My father had finished with them and handed them off to me. "It's time you graduated from the Hardy Boys," he had said. Still, I had packed The Twisted Claw by Franklin W. Dixon with the other books -- only that one hidden in my A2000 pitcher's glove. I had just finished An American Guerilla in the Philippines, and the day's weather conspired to place me even more fully in Manila, 1942 -- my cousin was the American intelligence officer here, my aunt and uncle were Japanese collaborators.
My uncle's police radio crackled with static downstairs and in our attic bedroom. My cousin Jimmy and I listened to the Ventures play "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue." The Ventures twanged the hell out of this one on their Mosrite guitars. Nothing could be cooler than this 45 rpm record, I thought. Last week I found a recording at the library of the Ventures playing live in Japan. It had "Slaughter" on the CD. I listened and found it unlistenable. What was I thinking? I thought the theme to the TV show 77 Sunset Strip was boss too.
After multiple vinyl encores of Nokie Edwards, Mel Taylor, and Don Wilson that August day...and having finished The Twisted Claw...
"Frank found the switch and turned on the lights. The boys looked around...on the far side of the room, armor engraved with the symbol of the twisted claw, stood on a pedestal.
"...Joe suddenly grabbed his brother's arm. 'Hold on!' he whispered. I might be seeing things, but I'm sure that figure on the pedestal moved!'"
...I closed the book, switched the turntable to 33 rpm, put on the soundtrack to Lawrence of Arabia, and picked up a book I had found in a suburban garbage box: The Pass Beyond Kashmir by Berkely Mather. The difference in the writing was like a physical blow. I seem to remember a thunderclap overhead as I read:
"...The sun was dipping down behind the high ground towards Malabar Hill, but it hadn't taken the heat with it. You could almost see the heat. It seeped out of the streaked, yellow-washed walls of the bazaar and it made objects in the middle distance dance and shimmer. It was helped by the smoke of the little fires from the alleys that ran down toward the Crawford Market where the women were cooking the evening meal of curry and dahl and the street traders were waking from the long siesta...scratching, hawking and spitting. Ten thousand of them doing it in concert...can drown all other sounds in the two waking hours of dawn and sunset in Bombay."
The music Maurice Jarre scored for David Lean and Peter O'Toole's Lawrence fit the characters Smedley, Rees, and Polson and their deadly rendezvous in the Himalayas to perfection. I made it so in the geography of my 12-year-old mind. India, the Arabian Desert -- what difference? I wondered what curry and dahl tasted like. I wanted to see Arabs and camels spit, hordes of Thugees and Sepoys at the Afghan frontier, scimitars and lances winking in fierce sunlight.
Somewhere around that time I had read The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence. I remember enjoying it, but I could not have understood it. I couldn't make it through Lew Wallace's Ben-Hur, but I sat through Charleton Heston's portrayal several times. Listening to Miklos Rozsas's score while reading Harold Lamb's Ghengis Khan and Hannibal worked well. About that time, the Beatles were on transistors and hi-fis everywhere you went. I read Catcher in the Rye four times that year and I Was a Teenaged Drug Addict (author forgotten) and Junkie by William Burroughs -- all to early Beatles singles and Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" or "Blue Rondo à la Turk."
When I think of H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines, I think of early Animals records and, for some reason, Billy Joe Royal's cornball lament "Down in the Boondocks." I heard that one and the Byrds' "Mr. Tambourine Man" wafting across the still surface of Round Lake in northern Illinois in whatever summer that was. The Beatles' Revolver was in there somewhere too, and I read King of the Khyber Rifles, Sartre's Nausea (to the tune of "Is That All There Is?" -- I could swear -- coming from my mother's bedroom as she lay in bed all of June and July of 1966). Then there was The Iliad and The Odyssey (for school, but I loved them) as well as a copy of Terry Southern's Candy I had hidden under my mattress. This latter novel went well with beef jerky and early Rolling Stones.
My father and the films Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk led me to the books of Rafael Sabatini. The unforgettable opening line from Scaramouche, "He was born with the gift of laughter and the sense that the world was mad," is carved not only in memory but, I later discovered, over an entrance to the campus of Yale University. The novel itself is far superior to the movie with Stewart Granger (so wrong) and should be enjoyed with Royal Crown cola, the Beau Brummels' "Laugh, Laugh," and the Lovin' Spoonful's "Summer in the City" and "Do You Believe in Magic?" If you have the opportunity in this life, read The Sea Hawk and/or Captain Blood while listening to Erich Wolfgang Korngold's score to Errol Flynn's depiction of Peter Blood and Geoffrey Thorpe.
Another Sabatini, The Black Swan, concerning the lusty adventures of Captain Tom Leach and the heroic Charles de Bernis, was read, at least in part, while my mother played for my brother and me a recording of The 1812 Overture. Tempestuous crescendos and cannon fire were superb accompaniment to swashbuckling scenes: