Armchair influence

In the house where I grew up, Mom would suddenly and without notice rearrange the living room furniture.  Returning home after school or work, my Dad, my sisters and I would find the couch here, instead of there, chairs in places other than where we left them, tables that had wandered around the room, as if free-range.  I suppose it was some version of redecorating, without the expense.  I never understood.

The anchor position of Dad’s armchair was in front of the living room window, back to the glass, facing into the room.  On his right hand was the bookcase he had built as a room divider.  To his left was Mom’s chair, a small table between them.  There were many other arrangements on those days when Mom got the urge, but when I shuffle through my mental library where images are stored, this is the configuration which comes up first.

In his collection of books on those shelves stood one by Richard Halliburton who, in 1919, left Princeton to travel the world.  At the height of his fame, his adventures were regularly reported.  Dad carried newspapers to homes in and around Fort Lawton, so it may have been these newspaper articles which brought his name to Dad’s attention.  I’ll never know.  I asked him once about the Halliburton book, receiving one of Dad’s economical if uninformative replies, so I asked to borrow his book.  I read enough to understand who Halliburton’s was, where he went, what he did.  Only later did I make the connection between his adventures and what I believe was Dad’s affinity for them.  

Halliburton was famous for, among other feats, spending a night atop the Great Pyramid in Cairo, swimming through the Panama Canal, and a moonlit night within the locked gates of the Taj Mahal:

Words fail me to describe these magic hours – all, all alone with the Taj! A light burned over the graves under the dome, two guards slept outside the doors, two were inside the wall gate – that was all.  Only I was awake.  The slanting beams gave a mellowness and softness to the marble dome that defied comprehension.  The odor of flowers was everywhere, roses and lilies and fragrant shrubs.  For three hours, I roamed about the garden, on the glittering side, on the black side where the moonlight gave a glowing edge to the domes and minarets.  There is an elevated marble pool halfway down the walk from the entrance gate.  How cool the water was!  For half an hour I sat by the pool, the moon pouring itself over everything, the garden about me a fairyland, and the Taj above me.  I was transported out of this world.  It was a taste of paradise.”

Richard Halliburton; His Story of His Life’s Adventures, as told in letters to his Mother and Father, Copyright 1940, The Bobbs-Merrill Company

At an age close to Dad’s when he may have discovered Halliburton, I discovered Colin Fletcher, a traveler of a different sort.  After serving six years in the Royal Marines during WWII, Fletcher lived in England, Kenya and Canada, before coming to the Bay Area of California.  The Thousand-Mile Summer, published in 1964, documented his six-month walk through California, from Mexico to the Oregon border.  It and the other walks and books that followed secured his place in the minds of backpackers and environmentalists, and in my imagination.  I have all of his books on my shelf, as greatly admired as Halliburton may have been by Dad.

At the bend in the road, I pulled over and parked tight against the fence.  I got out and began to walk around the back of the car, eyes reaching for the two worlds, and at that moment the sun came easing up over the valley’s rim.  Warmth and vivid light flooded the scene spread out before me.  Earthy spring smells welled up from wet grass.  I took another step forward and stood beside the fence, already partway excluded and included; stood there looking out over the view that had become so familiar yet always remained fresh.  Down at the foot of the valley lay the flatlands and the houses.  At its head, framed between steep slopes, rose the billowing green folds of the forest.  Down the years, this pause became a minor but valued personal tradition: a sign that I had begun to break free from the flatlands and the houses and their world all wrapped in schedules and money and other tinsels; a signal that I had already moved across some invisible line, halfway to the forest; had moved a decisive step closer to a world in which the things that ruled would once more be the creak of pack harness and the rhythmic brush of boots through damp  leaves and a glimpse of a squirrel leaping high and free, treetop to treetop – a world in which I would know that the hours and days ahead lay safely cradled in no one else’s hands but my own.

The Secret Worlds of Colin Fletcher, Copyright 1989 by Colin Fletcher, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

From the armchair, it was possible to discover, to explore, to imagine remote places, to experience vicariously that which lay beyond the known, the plain and the familiar, to leave the neighborhood, the daily routine, to become a wanderer in a wider world.  

I felt it.  I think Dad did too, although I have so few of his own words on the matter that I am left to infer a lot.  But I believe it may have been a shared trait.  It had, I think, the same effect on us both, an appeal most strongly felt when we were each young men.

I still enjoy reading Colin Fletcher.  And when I take Richard Halliburton from my bookshelf, I enjoy sharing the experience of it with Dad, moving, with equal amounts of information and imagination, into his mind and heart.


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