Saturday, January 03, 2009


Today is J.R.R. Tolkien's birthday. I am not a big enough Tolkien fan to remember that off-hand (I don't even remember when HPL's birthday is, nor Poe's for that matter...hmmm...I guess birthdays aren't that important to me, but anyway), but I was reminded by Brer at Power Of Babel and his post reminiscing about how Tolkien has influenced his life. I found it very interesting and an enjoyable read, but of course YMMV, and I am sure my own enjoyment of it was enhanced because I've known Brer for more than 20 years. (P.S. Wow!)

My own first encounter with Tolkien was via our fifth grade literature book, which included the chapter "Riddles in the Dark" from The Hobbit. It did not make an especial impression on me, but then it was only one chapter lifted entirely out of context from the book. However, I did remember it. In fact, it is the only story that I specifically remember from that book. Oh wait. There was also a story about a guy who accidentally caught a huge manta ray with a casting net and it almost drowned him. That was a pretty good one, too, but I don't remember the title or author.

When I was growing up I didn't really go for fantasy very much. I read almost entirely science fiction and westerns, along with some juvenile mysteries like the Hardy Boys and some classics (Kidnapped, Robin Hood, Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe were favorites). So...I'm not really sure why I first read The Hobbit. I had a cousin who had similar reading habits, and who I sometimes swapped books with, and I think he may have told me about it and set me on the path.

So when I reached high school, I checked The Hobbit out from the school library. I don't think they had any of the LotR books in the library, but of course I learned about them from the book ads in the back of The Hobbit. I returned the book, then told my grandmother about it. She was unusual, I think, for grandmothers. She read quite a few fantasy books in her older years because of my recommendations. She said she'd like to read it, if I could check it out again. Well, I smuggled it out of the library so I wouldn't be restricted to a one-week turnaround and gave it to her. When she finished it, I read it once more myself, then smuggled it back in and returned it to its proper place on the shelf.

One of those years in high school, but I don't remember exactly when, I asked for and received all four of those books for my birthday. I had even read The Silmarillion once before I graduated high school. A friend of mine had bought it, but didn't like it because it wasn't really very much like LotR, and gave it to me. I think I might still have that one around here somewhere, but he was pretty hard on books and it was torn up some. I later bought a better edition for myself.

Eventually I got into other Tolkien books, having read Unfinished Tales and attempted the first two or three of The History of Middle Earth, but those are too scholarly for me and I never really got into them. And yes, I did read some of the others, like The Tolkien Reader. I recently began Roverandom for the first time but got sidetracked. It's still in the reading stack beside my bed. And of course I mentioned only recently that I had finally purchased The Letters from Father Christmas.

So no, Tolkien did not have the same influence on me as he did on Brer, but there was certainly some influence. If I were forced to choose an author that had more influence on me than any other, I think I would have to say it was probably Louis L'Amour, since I used to make notes of some things he mentioned so I could look them up elsewhere to make sure he got it right.

My real reason for writing all this is to revisit 1985. It was May 15 of that year that I was hired as a delivery guy at a local pizza place called Mr. Gatti's. (It's actually a chain, but it's not a big chain like Pizza Hut or Domino's). The role that this place has played in my life and the lives of several other people I know cannot be underestimated. Not because it was a good job, but because of the people we met there. I came to know many people from working there who I counted as friends, but they have all scattered to the winds and I've lost track of them. Except for Brer and his family.

I know it was May 15 because my hire date was printed on my check stub, and every time I got a paycheck I saw the line that said: Date of Hire 05/15/1985. It took only a couple of weeks before I was doing a lot more than just delivering pizzas. I was the cook, the guy who made the dough, the guy who mixed the sauce, and just about everything else that might happen during the night shift. At that time Brer was working part-time as the Friday- and Saturday-night busser/dishwasher (the two busiest nights of the week for a restaurant). He would sweep out and back with dishes, quickly and efficiently wash them, and then spend several minutes standing there by the sink, which was behind the cook station, with a book in his hand until it was time for him to make another pass at the dining rooms (there were two). I had noticed him back there with a book, but since I knew how irritated I would get at being interrupted while reading, I hadn't ever bothered him.

Then one of those nights, during a lull, some of us in the back kitchen began telling spooky stories. I started telling the others about the Necronomicon, trying to tell it so they would believe it was real. Then some business hit and we went to our stations, which left me alone at the cook station. Suddenly this head popped out from behind the station and announced, "It's a fake!"

"What?!" I said.

"It's a fake!" he said. "The Necronomicon. It's a complete fabrication invented by H.P. Lovecraft."

"Shhh!" I hissed. "I know that, and you know that, but they don't know that!"

And that was how I met Brer. Now that we seemed to have established a more or less even footing between us, we began talking books. A week or two later, Brer came to work with a typed list of books with a blank next to each so I could go through the list and check off the ones I had read. I will never forget that. I have never met any other person who submitted a list of books he considered important so I could show which ones I had read. I don't remember any details about that list, except that I was puzzled when Brer seemed impressed that I had read James P. Blaylock's The Elfin Ship.

Eventually I came to know and become friends with others of Brer's large and curious family. Brer himself has been a big influence on my reading habits, clueing me in on books--not to mention good movies and TV shows--that I would probably never have heard of otherwise. There were a lot of things bad about working at Mr. Gatti's, but I am always thankful that I did work there. Otherwise I would never have known Brer and his family.

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