Monday, January 12, 2009

Travels with Charley

I'm often asked which great American writer has the most influence on my writing, and my answer is always, Thomas Jefferson.

Oh the joy of free speech!

Aside from my satirical answer, I have a few real favorites; Cormac McCarthy, Tom Clancy, John Steinbeck and a couple more, all modern authors.

Steinbeck was required reading in high school as well as Faulkner, Hemingway, and J. D. Salinger. As part of our high school indoctrination to literature Chaucer, and Shakespeare also had to conquered.

To my high school English teacher Mrs. Brenda Flynt and your kind, damn you!

You made reading painful, failed to bring joy to reading, and in the process convinced your students that reading was only for geeks and nerds. With your intolerance of anything unscripted, you failed to allow your students to explore literature and thus to learn.

In your world of endless lectures we could never appreciate great writing if we failed to see an author's work as you saw it. To you we were clearly incapable of reading even the most basic newspaper drivel, and certainly could not understand great works of literature.

To Mrs. Flynt, I'm sure I was a standout member of the breakfast club, a literary slacker who failed to understand that a good book needed to studied, and dissected, not simply enjoyed.

I don't think I read much other than the comics until I was nearly 25, and I suspect the decline in newspaper readership is the end result of years of inept teaching by English teachers just like Mrs. Flynt.

I did however read one book cover to cover in High School, Steinbeck's Travels with Charlie.

The assigned reading was Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men", and I, ever the procrastinator, waited too long to make the trip to the library and found the shelves void of the required book.

But in the spot where Mice and Men should have been, I found Steinbeck's Travels with Charlie.

I put the book on the check out counter and for the next four days did nothing but read the Pulitzer prize winning author's travelogue.

I was as fascinated by the man, as I was the trip, his adventure became the seeds to my life long love of the road trip.

"When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked". - John Steinbeck
When Mrs. Flynt discovered my horrific miss deed, she took Travels with Charley from my desk, returned a short time later and thrust "Of Mice and Men" towards me with a stern "Here"!

I managed to bluff my way through my senior English class with the help of "Cliffs Notes" and a steady girlfriend. You can probably tell from my ever present spelling errors and poor punctuation, I learned nothing in high school.

Steinbeck's Travels with Charlie received a tepid reception from "critics" like Mrs. Flynt when it was published in 1962. Yet today the book still remains in print.

It has been said that Steinbeck's last great book was his first, The Grapes of Wrath. While "The Grapes of Wrath" and "Of Mice and Men" are considered his best work, "Travels with Charley" still fascinates me.

I fear the great American road trip may soon be a thing of the past, with sure to rise again fuel prices, and proposals to equip our cars with GPS devices that track our every move so we can be billed by our government for our actual road usage, the costs may become prohibitive.

Perhaps one day mankind's only understanding of a road trip maybe an old book, by a long since passed author and a dog named Charley.

The road beckons, and our lives are wasting away, the best time to start a new journey is now! So what are you waiting for?

Rocinante, John Steinbeck's GMC pickup and camper that served as his home away from home during his nearly 10,000 mile journey is on permanent display at the Steinbeck Center in Salinas California.

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