Forty-five years ago today I raised my hand with a roomful of other young fellows in Dallas and recited an oath that delivered us into the United States Army. Later that afternoon I settled into the first airliner seat I’d ever been in and clutched a paperback novel I’d just bought in the airport gift shop. It was The Godfather, by Mario Puzo, which had been published a few years before and had just been made into a film that was destined to be widely considered one of the best two or three movies of all time.
Of course, I didn’t know how good the film was then, since I hadn’t seen it yet.
Truth be told, I didn’t know much, period. I had just turned 20, had taken an unproductive first stab at college, and had been working as a clerk at a Gibson’s Discount Center in the automotive department, an assignment for which I was totally unqualified. Finally, Uncle Sam took notice of my less than spectacular accomplishments thus far and sent along my draft notice.
Jump forward to the fact that my stint in the service would turn me around completely, send me back to college (literally, via the GI Bill) and set me on a much more responsible path. But the nervous young guy, unable to see the future, holding that book during that long-ago airplane ride faced a challenging and daunting reality at the end of it: basic training.
When the plane landed in San Francisco a bunch of us recruits were herded into an olive drab (a color we would get used to) army bus and driven down to Fort Ord, given bowls of lukewarm soup by a disgruntled private in the late night, and taken to an old Beetle Bailey type barracks. When everybody else stretched out on narrow metal bunks (we’d get used to those, too) I found the only lighted room in the two-story wooden building, the latrine. Where I read the first chapter or two of The Godfather before turning in and getting a few hours’ sleep until a fireplug of a drill sergeant, in the wee hours of the next morning, charged into the big room bellowing out a blood-curdling promise that our lives would be a living hell for the next eight weeks.
It turned out he generally delivered on that vow, particularly, I recall, when prodding us through double-time marches in combat boots and full gear through the surging, cold (even in August), knee-high surf of the Pacific.
But what kept those weeks from being a total hell for me was, believe it or not, that paperback novel. In the precious few minutes of reading time I could fit in every day between physical training, classroom instruction, late night inspections, early morning inspections, long marches to firing ranges, and literally hundreds, maybe thousands, of pushups I managed to get The Godfather read before graduation.
Then, when I was sent across Fort Ord to my specialized training school – it was determined I would be a 71B10, a clerk-typist (surely not a title used now; I suspect no typewriters survive in the modern military) – I had more time on my hands to read and make my way through something like two books from the base library a week until I completed the course and went home for Christmas leave.
Here’s the point of this little saga, not uncommon to countless folks of that generation: Those books provided, for me, much more than entertainment. They offered other worlds to go to when I needed to distance myself from the one I was actually in.
Years later, when I became a writer and a teacher of people who wanted to be one, I reminded my students that we can only tell stories, hopefully to the best of our abilities to relate them. We can’t know what an individual reader needs that story to be in his or her current and unique situation. But if it’s a good yarn, well-structured and well-told, it might just serve a purpose we can never envision.
A paperback novel I bought forty-five years ago today in an airport gift shop served as proof positive, for me, that a book, story, play, poem, or even a song can sometimes work a kind of magic that goes beyond mere enjoyment or enlightenment. It can be therapy. It can be a temporary escape pod.
I reread The Godfather a few years ago and discovered that it wasn’t particularly well-written, certainly inferior to the screen adaption and even other books by its author. But that’s okay. It was exactly what I needed it to be at the time.
Happy anniversary, young Ronnie Rozelle from Oakwood in your lonely airplane seat back on August 2nd 1972. You’ll survive boot camp. That book you’re holding will be a big part of the reason.