Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Mystery of the Long Lost Book

Growing up in the 1950s and 60s, without video games, computers or even cable TV, my brother and I were both avid readers. We particularly liked the fictional “Hardy Boys” series: mysteries featuring brothers Frank and Joe Hardy and their friends, all “typical, healthy American lads of high school age,” written by “Franklin W. Dixon,” and set in the imaginary town of “Bayport.” (I read Nancy Drew mysteries too, but I thought the Hardy Boys had a more interesting time of it, with often scary but always happily-ever-after adventures.) This series originally dates back to the 1930s, with newer editions tweaked every so often to update the language, appearance and settings. It didn’t matter to us, though, when the book was printed – beat-up brown, dog eared and dated, or shiny blue with full-color illustration on the cover -- we enjoyed them all.
When my brother’s first son (and fourth Robert in a direct lineage) was born in 1983, the whole family was delighted beyond measure, none more so than our dad, who quickly came to be called “Papa.” As Robert grew, Papa and he became inseparable. They baked my father’s famous peanut butter cookies together, rode bikes in the state forest (chock full of old Native American legends), tinkered with various tools and projects in the woodshed, and took rides around town in dad’s pickup truck where Papa, born and raised just a couple of houses from where he eventually ended up, would tell stories about the very early days when the town was made up of dairy farms and factories that ran on water mill power. When Robert came to stay overnight at his grandparents’, Papa, as avid a reader as we were, would read him books after supper (as would Gramma, of course, just as she had read to me). Curious George was an early favorite, as well as Thomas the Tank, Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel, and of course Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are.” Books were a mighty force in this household; young Robert listened and learned.
One day I found myself walking past the local Congregational Church during one of their annual rummage sales. Unable to resist, I went inside to poke around. You never know what treasures are hiding in someone else’s castaways. Naturally, I found myself heading for the table of second-hand books. Buried underneath everything, as though it had been picked up and tossed back several times, I spied a familiar looking title: “The Hardy Boys: The House on The Cliff.” This was not one of the bright blue newer issue volumes, but rather one of the older brownish-beige volumes with just the title and a silhouette of two boys imprinted on the cover. Here was a treat – a great way to start Robert off when he was old enough for “chapter books.” The name written on the flyleaf was that of a local boy around my brother’s age. That made sense – his parents were probably cleaning things out of their house. I bought the book and slipped it into the bookshelves at my parents’ house, and then I forgot about it.
A few years went by when one day I was visiting and idly looking through those bookshelves. The rummage sale find caught my eye again. I picked it out and casually began to leaf through it. Though the copyright page had been torn out, I could see it was probably one of the original editions, plenty dog eared and doodled in, but not in bad shape. Then I stopped short. Was there something about these doodles that looked familiar? My dad had sold real estate while we were growing up, as well as held political office. Lots of telephone time was involved with these professions, and lots of doodling. Dad’s favorite thing to draw was a hatchet-faced man smoking a pipe. There was that profile – I’d know it anywhere – obviously inked with a fountain pen. I checked more carefully. Another boy’s name had been scribbled onto the front cover of the book. Though worn with time and handling, it was still very clear: it was my father’s name.
Somehow, a book that my father had as a child growing up in our town had been given or lent to a friend or classmate, lost track of, and then gone from there to a box at a rummage sale, where by coincidence I had spotted it and picked it up and brought it unknowingly back to its original owner – more than fifty years later!
Maybe it isn’t a priceless heirloom or a first edition that would fetch big bucks at a used book store. I think it would still appeal to the Hardy Boys’ sense of mystery. And we are comforted to know that in this big world, there is still a sense of fate and continuity. Papa is a robust 87 now and as remarkably active and well-read as any “semi-retired” (!) proper country gentleman. Robert, who is a wonderful young man of 26, will remember time spent with Papa, in the kitchen, in the woods, in the shed, around the town. Because of Robert, I bought a book. And along with those peanut butter cookies, tales of Indian legends and rainy days tinkering in the wood shed, now there is something else that Robert and his Papa share – something small that has come home again, something to stay forever.

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