In 1956, my father cared about his newspaper, TV, and being left alone, particularly by me. At five, I was energetic and curious and seemed to believe that Bill Kidd had all the answers and would be happy to give them to me.
“Daddy, how come you don’t read the newspaper backwards instead of forward? Maybe it would be funnier that way.”
He lowered the paper. “Joe, how come you don’t listen to my opinion when it’s something important?”
“I listen, Daddy.”
“At dinner, I told you, ‘Make those carrots disappear.’ You threw the carrots at the cat.”
“I listened, Daddy. How come…”
The newspaper went back up. The rumbling voice said, “Danged chaps. I should have stayed in the Navy.”
That kind of father-son bonding extended to Christmas morning at the foot of my parents’ bed.
“Daddy, you said it wasn’t Christmas until I saw light in the window. I shined my Batman flashlight on the window and saw light. Is it morning?”
“Probably in China. Or Hell.”
“Bill! Don’t talk like that in front of Joe.” My mother was awake now. There was crying from the baby’s room. Mom threw back the covers and hissed, “Look what you’ve done now, William Kidd.”
My dad said, “Yes, son, I believe it is morning now.”
I danced the flashlight beam around the room like a searchlight at the opening of a department store, which was my understanding of Christmas. Christmas was the day when the things you had ordered came in. In those days, kids relied on a time-honored process of getting things.
“Daddy, can I have a boat for Christmas?”
“Daddy, can I have a boat for Christmas?”
“Momma, can I have a boat for Christmas?”
Dad turned on the TV in the living room, collapsed into his chair, and try to read his newspaper while enjoying the 3 a.m. test pattern.
Looking under the twinkling tree, I saw a square box, boat-sized. I walked over and saw a silver “J” that was the start of my name.
“Open your present,” came the voice behind the paper.
I tore open my boat.
There was no boat. Let me repeat that, in the same way I heard it in my head that day: THERE WAS NO BOAT. There was a small case with a hinged white top.
“You’ll like it,” said the voice.
My dad would never lie to me. I opened the lid and saw a small turntable and a metal arm.
The voice said, “It’s a phonograph. Mono-phonic. You can keep it in your room, away from us, and play your own records.”
I knew records. They were the boring things my dad would play with names like Perry Como. Boring things, that usually led me to go in search of more productive things like torturing Boots the family cat.
I looked up at my mother with heartbroken eyes. I was betrayed, an orphan.
“Look in the bottom,” Mom said.
Books were things from the kindergarten I was kicked out of.
Not a boat.
There was a small orange 78 rpm vinyl record in a sleeve inside the book.
“See,” Mom said, taking the record out and placing it on the turntable. She sat the book in my lap and opened it to the first page. Picked up the arm and put it on the spinning record. “The record will read the book to you.”
The record made a hissing static sound as I calculated ways to get even. The cat was in trouble.
Then the record said, “Hop on Pop” as Mom’s finger moved and commanded the words from the page.
I still wasn’t sure.
“And you can learn to read, all by yourself. Just move your finger and say the words along until you can read them yourself.” She took my hand and put my finger on the page and moved the needle back to the start.
“Keep doing this until you can do it without the record and when your smart-aleck cousin Harold comes over with my know-it-all sister Erma, you can show them that you are as smart as him, even if he is in the first grade.”
I lifted the arm and tried it by myself.
“Hop on Pop,” I said, along with the record.
It wasn’t bad.
Mom beamed and the newspaper rattled. I’d never been called smart. Trouble, yes. Smart, no.
Then I looked at the second book. On the cover was the biggest boat I had ever seen.
Mom said, “That one’s a Bible story. Jesus or something.”
I put on the record from the boat book. Opened the page and put my finger under the mysterious symbols the world had hidden from me until now. I set the needle down.
“Noah was a good man in a bad world, and he built the biggest boat ever.”
I did it again, this time saying the words myself.
All Christmas morning, I turned the pages again and again, until the biggest boat ever built lived inside me, forever mine.
Picking up her Redbook, Mom said, “Maybe we’ve found something he likes more than trouble. Joe, if you like, we can buy you more books.”
The voice said, “Hell, if it will keep him from sticking the cat’s tail in the light sockets, we’ll buy him every book he ever wants.”
I barely heard. At that very moment, I faded away from the world of Mom and Dad to the world of the rest of my life. From then on, I was raised by books. For a lonely and questioning boy, books would become my best friends, then my wisest teachers and, always, my utterly reliable comforters and protectors.
Mom and Dad kept their promise and bought me every book I ever wanted to keep me out of their hair.
And Boots the cat lived a long, happy life.
Michael Guillebeau’s book MAD Librarian (Madison Press, 2017) won the Foreword Reviews Gold Medal for Humor Book of the Year. Guillebeau has published five novels and over thirty short stories, including three in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.