From encyclopedias to MAD journal, early studying decisions made affect
I read a lot as a child. I want to say that I focused on the classics – “Wuthering Heights” or “A Tale of Two Cities”.
I certainly had access to such works. My parents signed me up for a book club – Reader’s Digest Children’s Classics, which puts two or three compressed novels in a single volume. The books looked very nice on the shelf, but I never cracked them.
My childhood tastes were more like non-fiction. I loved my Golden Book Encyclopedia, a wonderfully illustrated collection of 16 volumes filled with child-sized articles. Mom bought me volume after volume at FD Root Grocery, a wonderful little neighborhood market near our house.
Volume 1 dealt with “Aardvark for the Army”; It was a favorite because of its entry on armor, as in the body armor that knights wore in medieval Europe. Very cool.
Volume 12, “Paricutin to Quicksand”, was barely a second. The first entry in this volume was for a volcano that suddenly appeared in a Mexican farmer’s corn field in 1943 and would grow to nearly 1,400 feet over time. The last entry dealt with the mysterious liquefied soil that was so often the subject of cowboy misadventures in black and white westerns of the day, culminating in a scene in Mel Brooks’ 1974 farce “Blazing Saddles”.
In truth, I haven’t used my encyclopedia in its entirety; If I had, I would have been a Jeopardy wizard. Instead, my interests were quite selective and many entries went unread.
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When I wasn’t being so haughty, I was enjoying the satirical MAD magazine. I still remember my first copy: Issue No. 89 in September 1964, which contained a parody of the television drama “The Fugitive” entitled “The Phewgitive” and a piece titled “When the Cigarette Industry Fights Back”, a series of magazine ads that envisioned how the tobacco industry could push back against the then growing awareness that smoking kills.
I was also a pretty big fan of TV Guide, a small magazine that ran listings of all the television programs that aired that week – on all three channels. In all fairness, my review of TV Guide was pretty much redundant because I memorized the TV listings, at least during prime time. Television was a strange industry in the 1960s and early 1970s, with all three stations launching their new seasons and programs in the same week – just after Labor Day. That was a big week for TV Guide, which released an issue twice the size to give an overview of all the new shows, of which there would be plenty.
When I wasn’t watching TV (which wasn’t very often), I was enjoying The World Almanac and Book of Facts, a kind of pre-Internet source of all knowledge. It was published annually and updated with new facts. It was an admirably ambitious undertaking, or about 1,000 pages of information of all kinds: the heights of the tallest structures in the world or the length of the longest bridges. Population of the largest cities in the world. Mini-Biographies of American Presidents. Sports records. Notable news events of the previous year. Traditional and modern forbidden wedding anniversary gifts through year. The text of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights of the United States. Postage.
I’m sure there were times when I would open an almanac to find a specific answer, but most of the time I was just looking for something that would be useful if trivia nights had been invented.
At breakfast I read baseball boxing scores and the comics page. In times of desperation, I would devour the back of cereal boxes.
Instead of doing my homework, I spent some time enjoying anthologies of old Ripley’s Believe It or Not cartoons. Long before tourist cities had Ripley museums with strange and grotesque collections, Robert Ripley was a sports caricaturist who worked for the New York Globe newspaper and created a panel in 1918 that highlighted some unusual physical achievements, such as A. Forrester from Toronto, who ran 100 meters backwards in just 14 seconds. Within a few years, Ripley was traveling the world looking for and collecting curiosities. In 1929 his cartoons were syndicated internationally in newspapers. He published books and hosted radio and television shows. People flocked to see crazy objects and people in its various “odditoriums”. Ripley became one of the most famous people in the world and was instrumental in making “The Star-Spangled Banner” the national anthem – believe it or not!
When I became a baseball fan, I inherited Dad’s passion for studying statistics and meeting the great players of all time. My minister at the time once told the community that I was “a walking encyclopedia of baseball”. At Sunday school that day, some boys asked me to cite the Cincinnati Reds starting grid averages, which I did to the point that they dropped the matter.
My interest in baseball and almanacs crossed once when I was scrolling through a list of associations and came across what I believe has been called the professional baseball fans of America. I quickly sent a letter to the organization inquiring about membership and soon got a response from an Al Anderson in Cleveland. Al was a baseball nerd from the 20s who, with some friends, founded the “organization” as a kind of gag. Somehow the Almanac people had found out about it and included it in their strict pages. Al and I became pen pals, and Dad and I even met him once in Cincinnati to see a ball game.
My obsession with baseball also prompted a neighbor to unearth a 1951 book called “Three Men on Third,” co-authored by then-famous humorist H. Allen Smith, which wrote hundreds of short stories of amusing anecdotes from the history of baseball.
I enjoyed this book so much that I started hunting down the many other books by H. Allen Smith, some of which were bestsellers in the early 1940s. As an experienced newspaper man, he had a great appreciation for practical jokers and was involved in some elaborate stunts himself. Smith enjoyed the shabby side of the New York theater business, like little Broadway agents who put the payphone number on their business cards at their favorite coffee shop or salon. (The practice was so common that there were times when a payphone rang and three agents jumped up to answer it, thinking it might be some money to be made.)
Smith had a wonderfully self-deprecating sense of humor; He had seen so many minor disasters that he was pretty sure he was the blacksmith they called “blacksmith” for.
He also had an appreciation for trite stories; he liked to proclaim himself one of the four greatest cussers in American literature, with Huckleberry Finn’s father and his own father being two of the others. “I received my preliminary instructions on how to swear on my father’s knee and was doing my graduation at the pool halls and bar rooms in southern Illinois,” he said.
Smith also took pride in the story of how he made sure that America’s first legal drink was consumed after the ban was lifted.
At the time he was a feature writer for the United Press news service. On the afternoon of December 5, 1933, the Utah Constitutional Convention was due to cast the casting vote for the 21st Amendment, which would repeal the 18th Amendment and end the ban.
That day, Smith set Benjamin De Casseres, a famous writer and connoisseur of the day, in a suite in New York’s swanky Waldorf Astoria to drink the milestone. The hotel had agreed to provide a bottle of scotch for the stunt but, through a misunderstanding, handed over a whole case of whiskey instead, which flowed freely during the afternoon.
The word of the vote in Salt Lake City was to be transmitted immediately by telegraph to the United Press office in New York and then to a telegraph operator set up in the hotel suite. De Casseres would then have a drink and Smith would write an article on the capers.
But Smith had secretly devised an alternative scheme. He got the telegraph operator to give him a three-click signal immediately before reporting the news of the suspension. At the signal, Smith discreetly took a long sip of scotch. A moment later the operator called “Flash! Ban lifted! “So that De Casseres could raise his glass.
“With all the agility of a man knocking a vicious hornet off his nose, he swung a Scottish highball into his teeth and drank it in one mighty gulp in front of a semicircle of news cameramen, reporters and film photographers, just two and one – half a Second after the ban was lifted, ”Smith wrote for United Press in an article published in newspapers across the country the next morning.
“It wasn’t the most intelligible piece ever written,” he later recalled, “but it contained words.”
He long kept secret the fact that a moment before De Casseres’ sip, Smith had himself had his first legal sip of alcohol in the United States in 13 years. He revealed the truth years later in his breakout book “Low Man on a Totem Pole”.
This book contained many anecdotes from his time as a newspaper man. When I read it at the age of 13, the prospect of becoming a newspaper man myself one day was as slim as that of a President of Guatemala to borrow a sentence from H. Allen.
I was still reading H. Allen Smith a few years later when the teachers asked me to take a break from writing for reasons beyond my understanding.
In time I would turn my attention to Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, and other Masters. But whatever I am as a writer would not be without MAD magazine “The World Almanac” … and H. Allen Smith.
Guest columnist Chuck Stinnett can be reached at [email protected]