Men of Iron

We have several bookshelves at home, loaded with a great variety of books – big ones, little ones, and everything in between. Our collection includes many old favorites, read and re-read.  It includes more than a few of the classics, read at least once (or frequently, if it is Mark Twain). The shelves also hold a few dust collectors, acquired by chance, that we’ve never read and probably never will – too nice to throw away, too tedious to actually read, and of questionable value as boat anchors. Over the years we have given many such books away to friends to languish unread on their bookshelves instead of ours. The rest we will pass on to our kids, who might have the initiative to garage-sale them after not reading them.

On the shelves at home, our books are carefully organized by title. That simply means that the titles face outwards, which was not an original idea of ours but it works. Otherwise there is no system whatsoever, except we do try to keep the World Book Encyclopedias together as a group.  (Encyclopedia? Google that!)

We also have a bookshelf on our houseboat, the Phoenix, much smaller and concentrated with our favorite reading. These books say a lot about who we are, in fact, they speak volumes. (I’m not going to apologize for that pun; no one forced you to read it.)

There are a lot of reasons to have good books on a houseboat. Quiet evenings before sleep. Early mornings alone on the bow. Rainy days, sunny days, weekdays and Sundays. And most of all, anytime the deck needs scrubbing.

Good reading material is essential on a boat, and I don’t mean just this magazine and my column. I believe that books will get you through times of no sunshine better than rain will get you through times of no books. (No matter how many times you read that sentence it still will make very little sense, but I needed to flesh out my word count for this column. I blame the editor.) Now back to the subject.

When I was a boy of nine or ten, I began discovering books from the library. I could check them out, take them home and lose myself in worlds of pure adventure. In the neighborhood library I discovered Dumas, Asimov, Burroughs, Cervantes, and Twain.  Books were my alternate realities, universes full and rich and created just for me at a time when I desperately needed distant planets to explore, secret caves to hide in, rivers to raft down, treasures to unearth, swords to cross, swashes to buckle, and evil to vanquish.

I discovered books with a passion that was almost desperate. I didn't simply embrace them; I jumped inside and begged them to embrace me. The characters in my books could always be relied upon to behave in a manner that a confused, buck-toothed kid could trust and understand. When I ran with these heroes, explored with them, conquered with them, had close calls (yet always escaped) with them, I was strong, brave and invincible. Quite handsome, too. But every great story ended much too soon.

Recently on the internet I ran across an old book titled Men of Iron by a prolific author of swashbuckling children’s epics named Howard Pyle, who was also a magnificent illustrator. (Pyle is often called the “Father of American Illustration,” and an internet search of his work will show why.)

I must have read Men of Iron three times over the summer when I was ten years old because I wanted the story to never end. Howard Pyle showed me values of chivalry and honor. Ideals of honesty and trustworthiness. Satisfactions of endeavor and achievement. Men of Iron taught this wide-eyed lad that good guys could persevere, that stone towers could be escaped from, that black knights could be toppled, and that fair maidens could (and indeed, probably should) be rescued.

I have often remembered and thought about Men of Iron over the many years of my age – for this book, perhaps more than any other, helped me get through the age of being ten. I am going to order the copy I found for sale on the internet, and it will surely end up aboard the Phoenix in our concentrated collection of favorites, to be read again (and perhaps again) by me and my grandson.

Maybe it’s because the pure adventure of boating brings out so much of the boy that still lives in me. Or maybe, as my fair maiden suggests, it’s because I’d rather read a book than scrub the deck.

Satisfactions of endeavor and achievement can go only so far these days.

Until next time,
My Best from the Stern,
Ted A. Thompson