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.