I read a lot as a kid. I’d like to say that I concentrated on the classics — “Wuthering Heights,” say, 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 would squeeze two or three condensed novels into a single volume. The books looked very handsome on the shelf, but I never cracked them.
My childhood tastes ran more to nonfiction. I loved my Golden Book Encyclopedia, a wonderfully illustrated set of 16 volumes filled with kid-sized articles. Mom bought me one volume at a time at F.D. Root Grocery, a wonderful little neighborhood market near our home.
Volume 1 covered “Aardvark to Army;” it was a favorite because of its entry about armor, as in the body armor that knights wore in medieval Europe. Very cool.
A close second was Volume 12, “Paricutin to Quicksand.” The first entry in that volume concerned a volcano that emerged quite suddenly in a Mexican farmer’s cornfield in 1943 and in time would grow to nearly 1,400 feet in height; the last entry discussed that mysterious liquified soil that was so often a subject of cowboys’ misadventures in black-and-white westerns of the era, culminating in a scene in Mel Brooks’ 1974 farce “Blazing Saddles.”
In truth, I didn’t completely consume my encyclopedia; if I had, I would have been a whiz at “Jeopardy.” Instead, my interests were quite selective, and many entries went unread.
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When I wasn’t being so high-minded, I enjoyed the satiric MAD magazine. I well remember my first copy: Issue No. 89 in September 1964, which featured a parody of “The Fugitive” television drama it titled “The Phewgitive” and a piece called “When the Cigarette Industry Fights Back,” a series of magazine ads that imagined how the tobacco industry might push back against the then-growing awareness that smoking kills.
I was also quite a big fan of TV Guide, a small periodical that provided listings of every television program that would air that week — on all three channels. Frankly, my perusal of TV Guide was pretty redundant because I memorized the TV listings, at least those during primetime hours. Television was a curious industry in the 1960s and early 1970s in that the three networks all rolled out their new seasons and new programs on the very same week — just after Labor Day. That was a big week for TV Guide, which published an edition twice as big as normal to provide overviews of all the new shows, of which there would be many.
When I wasn’t watching TV (which wasn’t very often), I enjoyed “The World Almanac and Book of Facts,” a sort of pre-internet source of all knowledge. Published annually and updated with new facts, it was an admirably ambitious undertaking or 1,000 or so pages of all manner of information: The heights of the world’s tallest structures or lengths of longest bridges. Populations of the world’s largest cities. Mini-biographies of American presidents. Sports records. Notable news events of the previous year. Traditional and modern proscribed wedding anniversary gifts by year. The text of the Constitution and Bill of Rights of the United States. Postal rates.
I’m sure there were times when I opened an almanac seeking a specific answer, but more often than not I just thumbed through looking for something that would be useful once trivia nights were invented.
Over breakfast, I read baseball box scores and the comics page; in times of desperation, I devoured the backs of cereal boxes.
In place of doing my homework, I passed time enjoying anthologies of old “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” cartoons. Long before there were Ripley museums of odd and grotesque collections in tourist towns, Robert Ripley was a sports cartoonist working for the New York Globe newspaper who in 1918 created a panel highlighting some unusual physical achievements, such as A. Forrester of Toronto running 100 yards backwards in just 14 seconds. Within a few years Ripley was traveling the world seeking and collecting curiosities; by 1929 his cartoons were syndicated in newspapers internationally. He published books and hosted radio and TV shows; people flocked to view freakish objects and people at his various “Odditoriums.” Ripley became one of the world’s most famous people and had a major hand in having “The Star-Spangled Banner” made the national anthem — believe it or not!
When I became a baseball fan, I inherited Dad’s passion for studying statistics and learning about the great players of all time. My minister at the time once declared to the congregation that I was “a walking encyclopedia of baseball.” In Sunday school that day, some boys challenged me to cite the batting averages of the starting lineup of the Cincinnati Reds, which I did sufficiently enough that they let the matter drop.
My interest in baseball and almanacs intersected once when I was leafing through a listing of associations and discovered one called, I believe, the Professional Baseball Fans of America. I quickly addressed a letter to the organization inquiring about membership, and soon received a reply from one Al Anderson of Cleveland. Al was a 20s-something baseball nerd who had formed the “organization” with some friends as a sort of gag; somehow the almanac folks had learned of it and included it in their austere pages. Al and I did become pen pals, and Dad and I once even met him in Cincinnati to watch a ballgame.
My baseball obsession also prompted a neighbor to dig out a 1951 book, “Three Men on Third,” co-authored by then-famous humorist H. Allen Smith, who crafted hundreds of short tales of amusing anecdotes from baseball’s history.
I so enjoyed that book that I started hunting down H. Allen Smith’s many other books, some of which were bestsellers during the early 1940s. A veteran newspaperman, he had a great appreciation for master practical jokers, and had a hand in a couple of elaborate stunts himself. Smith delighted in the seedy side of the New York theater business, like small-time Broadway agents who listed on their business cards the number of the pay phone at their favorite coffee shop or saloon. (The practice was so common, he claimed, that there were times when a pay phone would ring and three agents would jump up to answer it, thinking there might be a buck to be made.)
Smith had a marvelously self-deprecating sense of humor; he had been on the bad end of so many small catastrophes, he once wrote, that he was pretty sure that he was the Smith that they named “smithereens” for.
He also had an appreciation for bawdy stories; he liked to proclaim himself one of the four greatest cussers in American literature, with Huckleberry Finn’s pa and his own father being two of the others. “I received my preliminary instructions in cussing at my father’s knee and did graduate work in the pool halls and barrooms of southern Illinois,” he declared.
Smith was also proud of the story of how he arranged for the first legal drink of liquor in America to be taken after the repeal of Prohibition.
He was a feature writer for the United Press news service at the time. On the afternoon of Dec. 5, 1933, the Utah Constitutional Convention was expected to cast the deciding vote on the 21st Amendment, which would repeal the 18th Amendment and end Prohibition.
That day, Smith put up Benjamin De Casseres, a famous writer and bon vivant of the day, in a suite in New York’s swanky Waldorf Astoria to take the milestone sip. The hotel had agreed to furnish a bottle of Scotch for the stunt, but through some misunderstanding had instead handed over an entire case of whiskey, which flowed freely over the course of the afternoon.
Word of the vote in Salt Lake City was to be instantly transmitted by telegraph to the United Press office in New York and then to a telegraph operator set up in the hotel suite. De Casseres was to then take a drink and Smith would write a feature about the caper.
But Smith had secretly cooked up an alternate scheme. He arranged for the telegraph operator to slip him a three-click signal an instant before reporting the news of repeal. Upon that signal, Smith discretely took a long swig of Scotch. An instant later, the operator yelled “Flash! Prohibition repealed!” so De Casseres could raise his glass.
“With all the agility of a man beating a vicious hornet off his nose, he swung a Scotch highball into his teeth and, in a mighty gulp, downed it before a half-circle of news cameramen, reporters and movie photographers just two and one-half seconds after Prohibition was repealed,” Smith wrote for United Press in a piece published the next morning in newspapers across the country.
“It was not the most intelligible piece ever written,” he would later recall, “but it had words in it.”
He long kept secret the fact that an instant before De Casseres’ swig, Smith had himself taken the first legal sip of liquor in 13 years in the United States. He revealed the truth years later in his breakout book, “Low Man on a Totem Pole.”
That book contained a lot of anecdotes from his years as a newspaperman. As I read them at age 13, the prospect of me someday becoming a newspaperman myself was as remote as becoming president of Guatemala, to borrow an H. Allen phrase.
I was still reading H. Allen Smith a couple of years later when, for reasons far beyond my comprehension, teachers began asking me to take a crack at writing.
In time, I would turn my attention to Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck and other masters. But whatever I am as a writer wouldn’t be without MAD magazine, “The World Almanac” … and H. Allen Smith.
Guest columnist Chuck Stinnett can be reached at [email protected]
This article originally appeared on Henderson Gleaner: From encyclopedias to MAD magazine, early reading choices somehow made an impact