I’ll never forget the day I read a book

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So…what is the first book you ever read?

What is the first book I ever read?

Allow me to crank up the Time Machine and get back to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when books slowly insinuated themselves into my life.

First thing I do is SEE a book. It’s over there, just within reach of my chubby little uncoordinated fingers. I can roll just a quarter-roll in my crib—that’s all it takes to see this unfocused blur of colors and shapes on the cover. All I know how to do is experience the book, not knowing that it can be read and manipulated. So, I do what I know how to do: lick the cover and gnaw at the corners. It tastes different than those mashed-up things they are feeding me. It would be even tastier if I could bite off a piece and swallow it, but that comes later.

So, first I SEE a book. Then I TASTE it. Then I masticate a bit. Then, I lose concentration and fixate on a wiggly toy that is hanging above me. I’ll get back to the book later.

Next thing I know, I’m snuggled up to my mother’s chest, experiencing the words she is reading to me as they vibrate the side of my face. I can HEAR her voice with one ear. I can FEEL her voice with the other. And then I note that she is gently turning the pages, causing the colorful shapes and strange markings to shift each time. I can hear her inflections of warmth, suspense, happiness, as the pages drift by.

Before I know it, I’m sitting up in my own wobbly fashion and turning the pages—not necessarily one at a time, not necessarily in any order. But I am doing the book the way I know how to do it. And, now and then, I even taste it again. I’ve been known to rub a crayon onto the paper to add color and design.

Time flies and now I’m reciting a book to my mother and sister, pretending that I’m reading it as the pages pass, but actually I still don’t know how to read, I’m just feeding back what I’ve heard them read aloud so many times. They play along with the ruse.

Now, at last, I am picking out a word or two in preparation for enrolling in the first grade. I’m excited about the prospect of actually making my way through the words with some degree of understanding. And, amazingly, after a while I start to read big-lettered words on my own.

What is the first book I can read without assistance? Hard to tell, since the books at school are not the same books we have at home. I’m reading some in both places. But in class, I get to read a Dick and Jane and Sally story all the way through! When I become an author many years later, I am jealous of those who wrote this reader. Wouldn’t you like to be the writer whose works can be recited by heart by millions of school kids? “See Dick run. Run, Dick, run!”

In middle age, I discover the song that comedian Jimmy Durante co-wrote and performed with gusto:

 There’s one day that I recall, though it was years ago.

All my life I will remember it, I know.

I’ll never forget the day a read a book.

It was contagious, seventy pages.

There were pictures here and there,

So it wasn’t hard to bear,

The day I read a book.

It’s a shame I don’t recall the name of the book.

It wasn’t a history. I know because it had no plot.

It wasn’t a mystery, because nobody there got shot.

The day I read a book? I can’t remember when,

But one o’ these days, I’m gonna do it again.

(Listen to Jimmy sing it, at the end of this column.)

Just yesterday, a pleasant family enters the shop, looking around and remarking upon the variety of things to read. One young girl is just tagging along, so naturally she’s the one I try to engage in conversation: “What do you like to read?” I ask, hoping to introduce some titles to her. She performs a sly smile and doesn’t answer because, like so many other children I meet these days, she knows her avid parents will answer for her. “Oh, she doesn’t read,” her father says. I know what he’s saying, but I play dumb just to see what kind of response I’ll get: “You mean she doesn’t know how to read?” I ask sympathetically. She grins even more deeply, waiting for her parent’s punchline. “No she just doesn’t like to read.”

I get it now. This lass has found a way to rebel against her parents, assert her own identity, appear cool to other kids. Normally, I get to talk up a book enough to inspire someone like her to try it, but I know there’s no way this can happen when hovering but well-meaning parents are there to puppet-master her conversation.

So, I say what I always say whenever the situation calls for it: “Oh, too bad. Mark Twain once said that a person who does not read has no advantage over one who can’t read.”

This is aimed at no-one in particular. The girl gets the joke but continues to play dumb. The parents remain perplexed.

What will no doubt happen—I’ve see it often—is she will discover a spicy novel proffered by a friend and, in secret, read it voraciously, becoming hooked on reading despite herself. She will, in the tradition of all kids, hide this novel and this fact from her parents as long as she possibly can.

The cycle goes on.

And maybe one day she’ll hear an old Jimmy Durante song and get excited all over again

Here’s Jimmy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uLOR8gKwyoo 



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Singing in the bathtub with Billy Eckstine and John Lee Hooker

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The Wanna-Be Billy Eckstine Bass-Baritone Life Plan Caper

I’m a barely-teenage superstar belting out my acapella rendition of “That Old Black Magic” in the privacy of the family bathtub, and my audience of none thinks it’s the best thing ever heard on planet earth.

That old black magic has me in its spell.

That old black magic that you weave so well.

Those icy fingers up and down my spine.

The same old witch-craft when your eyes meet mine.

The same old tingle that I feel inside

And then that elevator starts its ride *

The bathtub is private tonight because I have the house to myself for a while—a rarity because two parents and five kids usually live here.

This is back in the early 1950′s in Tuscaloosa, when pre-rock ‘n’ roll singers who make it to the top of their profession know how to enunciate and carry a tune and actually SELL lyrics to the listener. Once you hear the most dynamic of these performers, you are hooked for life.

Anyhow, I’m singing away in the bathtub, hoping against all hope that someday I’ll have a great voice that can belt out “That Old Black Magic” to beat the band, a voice that will make me the most popular kid on the block.

Among the best of the best of all pop singers is Billy Eckstine, whose powerful bass-baritone voice and sense of jazz-disciplined improvisation make him an icon alongside the great male vocalists of the day—Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Nat “King” Cole, Mel Torme, Bobby Troup, Tony Bennett, Cab Calloway, Bing Crosby, Big Joe Williams, Harry Belafonte, Louis Armstrong, Sammy Davis Jr., Steve Lawrence, John Lee Hooker, Fred Astaire. These guys are wonderful storytellers and back in these times they all get to be heard on local radio stations. This is long before music appreciation becomes segmented and self-limiting, long before a true Sinatra fan isn’t allowed to appreciate Hooker, long before it is unfashionable to pair Lawrence with Williams, or Satchmo with Mario Lanza.

In my family household, a great singer is a great singer, regardless of genre or age or race or style…so we listen to Hank Williams and George Beverly Shea and Dean Martin and Leonard Warren and Homer and Jethro equally, because we know each has a talent that must be embraced and appreciated.

That’s why I’m anxious to be home alone now and then so I can bellow out songs that bounce off the tiles and echo my temporarily enriched tones. Today, I’m emulating Billy Eckstine, whose incredible range and clarity make me feel I could make any woman within the sound of my voice swoon.

Funny thing about my particular generation is that we not only love our own music, but we love our parents’ and grandparents’ music as well. Our recordings span half a century—waltzes and bebop and scat and honky tonk and opera and polka and Cajun and country and gospel and schmaltz and jazz and blues and satire all combine according to the mood of the moment.

Later, when I become a disc jockey, I get to play all these forms of music, perhaps the last time any disc jockey is accorded this honor. As soon as the mid-1960′s approach, radio stations begin segmenting, specializing, becoming frozen in playlists. But for a while, I get to ply my trade in several worlds:

At a public radio station, I play classical and opera and ballet, along with show tunes, jazz, folk and international sounds from various exotic cultures. At commercial radio stations, I play “mood” music, rock ‘n’ roll, pop, comedy tunes, country gospel, ol’ time religion, barber shop quartets, upper-crust sacred works—you name it, I am exposed to it. Plus, I get to expose my audience to this wondrous variety of talent.

Nowadays, in the nervous present, I find it difficult to explain my taste in music. Hip hop fans know nothing about bluegrass, punk rockers don’t know who Howlin’ Wolf is, opera enthusiasts look at me funny when I mention that John Denver made recordings with Pavarotti. And heaven forfend if I suggest that Dennis Day also sang with Spike Jones.

So, the evergreen memory I hold close is one of pretending that I, like Billy Eckstine and his generation, might actually, for a coupla seconds at a time, sound great.

This love of understandable lyrics carries me into the future and influences what I later do for pleasure. After all that practice emulating male superstar singers and male superstar actors (Richard Burton, Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier, Dick Martin), I grow up knowing how to make clear what I am saying, how to express the meaning behind the words. It serves me in good stead when, now and again, I get to perform in public, teach, act, communicate the love of great books. I have Billy Eckstine and all his buddies to blame.

So, many moons after the Tuscaloosa bathtub performance days, I still sing at the top of my lungs in the shower—but only when no-one is around. After all, the worst thing anyone could tell me is that I may sound more like Don Knotts than Eckstine.

Darling down and down I go,

‘Round and ’round I go,

In a spin, loving the spin I’m in

Under that old black magic called love! *

Denial of unpleasant truths is something I’ve honed to a fine art. It keeps me going forward, keeps me from facing unwanted realities, keeps me performing for my admiring shower stall audience of none

© 2013 A.D. by Jim Reed

( Listen to the man himself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SATmftj-Qbc )

(The above lyrics are verbatim from the original sheet music by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen. Lyrics found elsewhere on the internet are inaccurate–and mostly transcribed phonetically.)



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The 15 Immutable Rules of Real Life


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1.    Things don’t sell for what they’re worth, they sell for what they go for.

2.    An outgoing smile is no indication whether there will be an incoming one.

3.    Smile only if it makes you feel good…don’t expect it to be returned.

Appreciate it if it is.

4.    A fake smile is almost always detectable.

5.    If you find it hard to smile, just think about what is worth smiling about in your life

and go with that.

6.    A smile may not be your umbrella on a rainy rainy day, but it can help you have fun

getting soaked. Imagine Gene Kelly, who was running a fever the day he filmed the

famous rain scene.

7.    If you’re afraid you’ll lose face, trying to smile when you don’t feel like it, just sneer

and turn it upside down. Post this sign in front of you at all times: SNILE!

8.    First-class people associate themselves with first-class people Second-class people

associate themselves with third-class people.

9.    Do nice unto others as you would have them do nice unto you. But if they continue

not doing nice unto you, drop them and associate only with those who do.

10.  Smile a lot, at nothing at all. It will make people think you know something they

don’t. It will drive your enemies crazy. It will draw nice people to you and help you

identify people who aren’t.

11.  Those who are tardy do not get fruit cup.

12.  Those who do not find their mittens do not get pie. Even if they find their mittens,

they still may not get pie.

13.  Sometimes, the sky really is falling.

14.  Every good idea eventually backfires.

15.  Even if something can’t possibly happen, it might.

© 2013 A.D. by Jim Reed



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The best $2-an-hour fried chicken Baptist happy hour Sunday lunch in these here parts

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“Hmm…this is…superb!” I say to Liz, who is sitting across the table from me at Cracker Barrel, digging into her Sunday lunch veggie plate.

I’m referring to the crunchy, heavily breaded and deep-fried boneless chicken part that just disappeared into my mouth. It’s been a long time since I’ve tasted chicken that seems fresh and moist and crumbly all at the same moment. It’s as if someone just prepared it from an old family recipe. Is the Fast Food industry losing its touch and getting better?

I offer Liz a piece and she agrees with me. This is good stuff.

The restaurant crowd is loud and boisterous and mostly obese, but I’m happy to sacrifice peace and quiet and unattractive scenery for food that tastes like my aunts used to make in the old days.

We’ve fogotten that just-past-churchtime is the busiest time of the week, and the Cracker Barrel staff is more focused on processing incoming customers than sharing pleasantries and anecdotes. I try to break the ice anyhow: “This looks like Baptist Happy Hour here,” I say to the pale waitress with a smile, hoping she’ll smile back at my little attempt at humor. She thinks I mean that this is a peaceful period, so she comes back with, “This is the worst time of the week, and I’m not even supposed to be working this shift.” She strains a smile and goes about handling several tables at once.

Later, she offers more insight into her life. “I’ve been working for three hours today for just $22 in tips. These people don’t know we (the waiters) are paid $2 an hour and have to earn the rest from customers.” Turns out she’s desperate for money. “I broke my tooth and it really hurts—it’ll cost me $500 to get it fixed.”

As we finish up, the harried waitress buses the next table, picking up a $3 tip from a $50 tab. She grumbles to the busboy, who is sympathetic and tries to help.

Birmingham is not known as a town of big tippers. We’ve not gotten the 20% memo that much of the rest of the nation has received. They must not know our zip code.

I’m thinking I’ll give her a 50% tip as a gesture of understanding. Liz adds another $5. We leave, knowing we haven’t solved the $500 dental bill problem, but we are slighly proud of the fact that we listened to the server, as opposed to haughtily making small demands as if we’re the upper crust and everybody else is the Help. I see people doing that a lot in restaurants these days.

“Two dollars an hour?” I quip to Liz as we head home. “Is this a great country or what?”

There oughtta be a law