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Books, Rebellion, and 'The Hunt for Red October'

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | October 3, 2013 | Comments ()


redoctober.jpg

The first two adult novels I read were The Lord of the Rings and The Hunt for Red October. The former was quite the experience, if only because I only had The Fellowship of the Ring, had never heard of a trilogy before, and by the time I only had fifteen pages left could barely blink I was so mystified as to how the story would be resolved so quickly. The latter was different.

I was in fourth grade, eight years old, had a few generations above me who’d been in the navy, and my Grandfather and Uncle handed me this beat-up gray paperback with a submarine on the cover, emblazoned with a red hammer and sickle. That copy is still sitting on a shelf in my house.

For the next five years, whenever school assignments demanded that I trot out the story of what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would tell them I was going to be the captain of a naval vessel. Or first baseman for the Oakland A’s. Oh and a fighter pilot in the space defense forces that were obviously going to launch before I turned eighteen in a million years. This was at that sweet spot of childhood where it’s not just that the whole world is open to your dreams, but that life hasn’t taught you yet that you have to pick a path and not just walk all of them at once. A child’s dreams of the future are a herd of Schrödinger cats, all simultaneously alive at once.

I had a teacher once tell me that I couldn’t be a captain without first being a sailor, and this of course was fair enough in the context of the class exercise, doing word problems based on income and expenses and such. But it did help me realize that someone with a pathological inability to follow orders of any kind would probably not rise far in a system with things like ranks.

But it was The Hunt for Red October that represented the great awakening of that rebelliousness.

My fourth grade teacher, bless her for I cannot remember her name, though I have enough retrospective self awareness to realize that I must have been a hellish student for any of my poor elementary school teachers. I was that terrible child who was bright enough to get all the lessons without trying, rebellious enough to not try, and quiet enough that no one realized that was the case. We had free reading everyday, which amounted to half an hour or so in which we were supposed to read quietly a book brought from home. Mine was The Hunt for Red October.

This caused several issues. The teacher did not believe I was actually reading it because it was obviously not a child’s book. When she tried to give me a different book to read, I’d skim it in a few minutes, and then return to the actual book I was reading. After enough frustration this way, the teacher gave up. When you’re a kid, intelligence can act as a sort of mild autism. Your brain leads you to different conclusions than everyone else, but you don’t have the experience yet to realize it. And so adults not in the know tend to think the smart kids are actually the slow ones.

On occasion, the teacher would call one of the students up to the front of class to read a few pages aloud from their book. I was called one day, carried Hunt for Red October to the front of class and proceeded to read the current page I was on. To this day I contend that it was hardly my fault that the page in question featured more profanity in the first three sentences than most elementary school teachers hear in a week. My book was confiscated for the rest of the day and I received a stern lecture while the rest of the class went to recess. I was in tears and had not the slightest clue what I had actually done wrong, or why the class was laughing. When I asked if I could have my book back to read at recess, at the end of this dressing down, wiping tears from my eyes, I received a look of such pure exasperation that a photo of it should appear on the Wikipedia page on the subject.

The final straw with reading the book at school was due to it simply being too much of a page turner to put down. This was a progressive Californian private school, so they tried to get us a second language early by bringing in a Spanish teacher a few times each week. It didn’t stick anymore than the French in junior high did. I’ve got language instruction teflon on my brain.

So our fantastic Spanish instruction consisted almost entirely of sitting and doing worksheets. As with every such exercise, I always finished before the rest of class, and would take out my book and read, waiting until the class moved on. This was accepted behavior in every other subject, but that militant Spanish generalissima, was incensed, ordering me to put away that other material and get back to work. I explained that I was finished, but this apparently was an even more egregious offense than reading in a school.

I was told that if I finished my work, it was my responsibility to help the other students with their work. This violated every principle of justice that had filtered down into my mind over my three-quarters decade of life. Not to mention the idea of talking to other students instead of reading filled my shy struck heart with abject horror. This was the first time in my life when I drew a line in the sand.

I’d like to draw some parallel, insist that I was inspired by Marko Ramius’ defection, but the honest truth is that it probably could have been any novel. But I’m glad it wasn’t Atlas Shrugged, otherwise I’d have to live with having consciously gone Galt at one point.

For the first time in my life, I consciously disobeyed a direct order from a teacher. I refused to help other students. When the instructor turned her back, I pulled out The Hunt for Red October. When she took it away, I pulled out a different book. When she took that away, I just stared at the wall. When she explicitly told me to move my desk next to another student and help them with their work, I moved my desk, and then closed my eyes and laid my head down on my arms.

The next day, I pulled out The Hunt for Red October again. And that sequence of events recurred. And then the next day again.

Until my mother was called in for a special teacher conference because of my behavioral problems. And daughter of a sailor that she was, I do believe she shared with my teacher and Spanish instructor a few of those same words that got me in trouble the week before.

And the next day, I read The Hunt for Red October beneath the glower of my Spanish instructor, and it was fantastic.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.



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Comments Are Welcome, Jerks Will Be Banned


  • NavyBrat1

    Actually the first time Steven disobeyed a direct order from a teacher was when he was in kindergarten. He not only refused to do the extra work that was given to him, he climbed up on his desk, standing tall, refusing to come down. He only lasted a semester in kindergarten.

  • DUDE. You just described my entire school experience. I was the one in the back of the class that was always quiet and never caused problems, but was always reading a paperback tucked into a textbook. It drove my seventh grade French teacher batshit. My first "adult" book? I don't even remember anymore. I can tell you that I started reading the entire Nancy Drew collection between first and second grade, and that my favorite book in third grade was The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley. I don't care that it's a Newberry winner - it's excellent for any age group.

  • BiblioGlow

    One of the best parts of reading your articles, SLW, is that it helps me realize I wasn't quite so freakish a child as I thought. I'm really enjoying seeing all the nerd children come out in the comments, too!
    For me it was Gary Paulsen and the loathing of my math teachers. Even now reading him is like going home. I didn't try Red October until middle school, and being a tweenage girl and thus pretty much the opposite of his target audience, I barely made it through. I remember I briefly learned a lot about submarines, though.

  • ralyra

    For me the book was a Harold Robbins novel. I have forgotten the title. I was too young to realize it was trash, I guess.

  • e jerry powell

    This is one of those instances where I -- quite hypocritically -- have difficulty separating an artist from his political ideology. Damn me to hell.

  • idiosynchronic

    Less cool than the rest of you - Star Trek, The Covenant of The Crown by Howard Weinstein, + the TV screenplay adaptations by James Blish & Alan Dean Foster.

    The best one was the middle school teacher smacking the book out of my hands and across the room.

  • TenaciousJP

    I had an extremely similar experience in elementary school. Except my book wasn't The Hunt for Red October, it was Memnoch the Devil. And I had plowed through the first four Anne Rice Vampire Chronicles the year before in fifth grade.

  • Erich

    For me, it was Stephen King's IT.

  • Dragonchild

    The one thing I get out of all this is that you're the second account I've read today that indicates Tom Clancy wrote at a 2nd grade level.

  • Bananapanda

    He kinda did. He definitely wrote at an overly masculined delusional level.

    I remember thinking 'this is a jacked up version of no Naval/Army/Marine officer I've ever met' and 'who in the Pentagon/NSA/CIA is leaking these secrets to a pulp fiction writer?!'

  • Those teachers sound like true idiots. Good on you for persevering in the face of bureaucratic stupidity! Help the other children indeed. Because kids love it when someone offers unwanted help especially if from another student!

  • Sassy Pikachu

    I was caught reading the Count of Monte Cristo when I was in 4th grade math class after exam. Except it was in China so the teacher took my book and ripped it in half.

  • BiblioGlow

    ಠ_ಠ

  • Doombear

    Absolutely brilliant. I'm extraordinarily jealous of your schooling that allowed actual reading if you finished work early. My god, that would have changed my life.

    And as a fellow young Clancy reader, I remember having the hardest time (and lack of vocabulary) trying to explain to people why the ending of Patriot Games (the book) was so much better than Patriot Games (the movie), despite the fact that the bad guys didn't even _die_ in the end.

    (Now, of course, I recognize that Sean Bean dying in a movie is an inevitable part of the natural order.)

  • TherecanbeonlyoneAdmin

    Our elementary school experiences are eerily similar.

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