Copyright 2020 by John Cortesi
Photo courtesy of Pixabay
has always been one of the central passions of my life. Like an
alchemist’s brew the evocative power of words has intoxicated
me with wonder, fear, curiosity, desire, and the myriad little
epiphanies that come with the reading experience. I think that most
of us who hear the siren call of the written word need an interlude,
a pause in our daily active lives, to penetrate with tranquility the
reality of being in silent community with the experiences, lives and
voices of others.
of us readers had the initial experience of being read to. In this
great gift bequeathed to us by parents, grandparents, and teachers,
we developed an internal sensory compass. In being read to we felt
happiness, sadness, excitement, and a sense of mystery alive in the
world. We wanted to be like that character, to see that place, to
experience that situation.
earliest memory of listening to the written word was at the age of
four. My mother read me a tale about bats leaving their nests at
night flying off into the night through caves and out into the bright
moonlight, flying above landscapes alive with the sounds of chirping
crickets and bleating toads. After that first reading I insisted on
hearing this tale nightly, with all lights except the reading lamp
off, so that I might feel the presence of the bats outside our house.
My imagination evoked a sense of mystery about the night and the
creatures and beings who move in the dark. When read by candlelight
a newly awakened sensory world opened up to me and I delighted in its
power to bring me sensual and imaginative pleasure.
in kindergarten I asked my father, before he left for work each
afternoon, to read to me from a book about Davey Crockett. The
battle at The Alamo and Davey’s death awoke in me a wonder
about mortality, about death. I wanted to see, to be at, the place
where Davey lived the last moments of his life. By the time I was in
third grade I was writing letters to the San Antonio Chamber of
Commerce asking for information about The Alamo.
put on a coonskin hat and, with my friends, acted out that battle and
the death of Davey Crockett. In my mind I could hear cannon and
gunshot fire, smell powder and smoke, and hear the shouts and screams
of men in battle. I tried to visualize what the shattered remains of
the fort looked like against the horizon of the rolling Texas plains.
From the time I was five years old I harbored a deep desire to walk
the fortress of The Alamo and experience being a silent sentinel
watching from its walls.
later, while in the Air Force, I was stationed in Texas and looked
forward with great anticipation to a long and dusty ride across the
plains to where The Alamo would surely stand. I was deeply
disappointed at the age of 18 to discover that the fort was in the
heart of a city surrounded by chain stores and gas stations! But
once inside the fortress my once-upon-a-time five-year-old world
blossomed. Thirteen years of reading had established an inventory of
images and sensations in my interior world that re-illuminated the
past for me.
the third grade my next door neighbor and best friend showed me a
book called The Sinister Signpost, one of the Hardy
series. The very title caused my imagination to take a quantum leap!
Where does the sinister signpost lead to, and why is it sinister?
Street lamps enveloped in fog, midnight bells, and the sound of
distant footsteps emerged from my interior world. Besides the
chilling title, the story of how my friend came to possess it
inflamed me with an urgent desire to read it.
three years older than I, told me that while on a boating excursion
with the Sea Scouts they had stopped at a small, remote island in an
estuary. As part of their activity, the Scouts were told to
dismantle an aged, long-abandoned shack. It was a foggy and overcast
day, Don said, and they had to walk through sucking mud and high
weeds. While he and his group were using pry bars to pull apart the
walls and wooden floor, Don found a rusted canister under the floor. In
it was The Sinister Signpost.
old shack, the mud and weeds, the rusty canister, the book –
all entwined in my imagination to start searchlights beckoning my
senses. I can still see the faded rust-brown book cover, the title
in black bold-faced letters. The distinct odor of mildew came from
the yellowed pages. For the next week my evenings were devoted to
the Hardy Boys’ adventures, followed by an adolescent-long
anticipation of the next book, the next adventure.
of these reading experiences formed a bedrock of sensitivity,
curiosity and reflection that worked together to make reading an
active experience in my life. Reading was for me a solitary
interlude in my childhood that I deeply needed. An only child in a
neighborhood of large families, I found that books could ease my
loneliness, my fear of being different. Envious of my friends with
brothers and sisters, books became my companions.
had a fear of large crowds, noise and frenetic activity and sought
out of the way places to spend my private time. One of the magic
places I discovered in the summer of 1958 was an old and dilapidated
wooden building that had been a Japanese American school until the
early 1940s. When Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps
from 1942 to 1945, the school had been unattended and vandalized.
had to walk down a weed-infested alley behind our folks’ houses
and then cross the Southern Pacific railroad tracks into a great
field. Perhaps a hundred yards beyond the tracks stood the abandoned
school. Unaware of its history we called it the Japanese Church and
thought that it might be haunted, or inhabited by a lone hobo seeking
sanctuary. We never ventured into its interior.
afternoon a neighborhood boy threatened to beat me up so I hid inside
the old school. I can still feel the cool shadows of its interior. On
one side was an elevated stage with a sagging, torn curtain
hanging down. On the floor beneath the stage was a piano with its
top torn off and loose strings spilling out. On the other side steps
led to a loft with a rusted basketball hoop nailed to the overhang.
Dust motes circled in the afternoon sunlight pouring through the
broken windows. Broken bits of wood and glass littered the floor. I
was absolutely absorbed, seeing and feeling like I never had before. I
strained to hear imaginary voices and in that moment knew that I
had found a home, a place to be alone, a place to read.
book of choice at the time was Tom Sawyer, and so
at the age
of nine, I climbed the steps to the loft, sat down against the
facade, and read with intensity the adventures of Tom and Huckleberry
Finn. As I read each afternoon I put my book down occasionally,
closed my eyes, and imagined the stars above and the smell of night
as Tom, Huck and I floated down the Mississippi River.
distinctly remember a passage in Huckleberry Finn
wakes up in his canoe, hidden in the willows along the riverbank, and
comments, “…it smelt late. You know what I mean?” Yes! I knew that
the middle of one reverie I opened my eyes to see an old woman, the
wife of a caretaker it turned out, watching me from where she stood
on the top stair. I had just finished reading the passage where Tom
was hiding in the balcony as outlaws wandered around suspiciously on
the ground floor. I let out with a loud “Whoop!”
startling the old woman as she had startled me. When we had both
regained our composure she smiled and gestured for me to continue
reading, We never exchanged a word but I sensed that she understood
the pull my reading place had for me, as if she said, “You are
welcome here…Read.” I did.
quiet afternoon, after reading the night cemetery scene where Tom and
Huck see Dr. Robinson, Injun Joe and Muff Potter, I closed my eyes,
visualizing what I needed to do. I decided that on the first rainy
night of winter I would sneak out to the old Victorian cemetery a
mile or so from our house, climb an old elm tree towering among the
sunken and scattered headstones and I would see and feel as Tom and
Huck had. No longer content with the imaginative power of words, I
now needed to experience the physicality of night, and rain, and
summer I devoured Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry
several Hardy Boys adventures, and a mystery entitled The
the Purple Hand. I shall never forget the peace of that
dilapidated old wooden building, the elixir of reading fueling my
need for experience. A kind of catharsis occurred each afternoon as
I slipped into the mood of the book and the building. Curiosity,
suspense, reverie, and fear were my companion emotions that summer.
school began that fall I eagerly, and fearfully, anticipated the
changing season, The intensity of my desire for rain had much to do
with the hope of testing, and proving, my courage. I had a deep fear
of fighting, and of the dark, and had failed many childhood tests of
bravery. One quiet afternoon the creaking and settling of the old
school had sent me running out of the loft, returning in shame the
next day. But now I would pit my desire for adventure against fear;
I would climb a tall tree on a rainy night in a dark cemetery. I
would prove that I could be as brave as Tom and Huck.
my compulsory fourth-grade diary I see the word “rain”
underlined on the November 10, 1958, date. I couldn’t
concentrate and could barely eat that day at school as I watched the
rain soak into the schoolyard grounds. When the last bell rang that
day and my classmates departed, I walked alone in the corridors
anticipating my experience-to-be that night. I became sensitized to
the sounds and smells around me, the smell of wax and cleanser and
damp earth, the tingling noise of rain against the metal gutters, of
tetherball chains rattling against the poles. I felt like Tom and
Huck as I planned my adventure.
dinner I asked my mother if it I might visit the Dunbar family down
the street. After her affirmative reply I went to my room and
quickly re-read the cemetery scene. As I left the house the rain
intensified and as I crossed the railroad tracks I began to have
second thoughts. Stories I had heard of hobos hiding in the
cemetery, of kids out to catch lizards who had fallen through eroded
earth into century-old graves, of strange noises coming from the ivy
and oleander growing over rusted iron fences.
I went on, jumping a cyclone fence and running across three acres of
lawn behind the high school. I ducked under a grove of redwood trees
on the school’s outer perimeter, getting showered with water
from the lower branches, reaching the outer edge of the cemetery. I
pushed aside oleander bushes and walked the old muddy trail that wove
through the grounds, the marble monuments and spires, worn sandstone
grave markers, wind and rain all intoxicating me. Fear, panic,
curiosity, mystery, and the need to complete my ordained task,
commingled as I walked through the mud and rain, over rotting wood
and debris, through ivy and dead sunflowers, to the elm tree I had
chosen. A faint yellow light from the bell tower of a century-old
Baptist church across the road was more sinister than comforting.
elm tree towered over a mausoleum with the family name “Gooch”
engraved into the marble above the vault door. As I started to climb
the tree my hands slipped on the rain-slick branches and I
desperately wrapped my legs around another branch, panting and
kicking. I made my way up to a high limb, bouncing in the wind, the
rain sweeping almost horizontally through the remaining leaves.
imagined Injun Joe, Muff Potter, and Dr. Robinson wending their way
closer to my hiding place and I was exultant! I had done something
courageous! I had pitted my fear against the night, the cemetery,
the elements, the symbols of death…and the unknown. At that
instant I knew that I would never again read a book in quite the same
way, Words had become real, alive. I knew that other adventures
awaited me, that all I needed was the curiosity to read and, by
reading, to explore. I came home that night at nine wet, cold,
I look back on my
reading life I see a woman reading to me by candlelight, an abandoned
building, a smiling face urging me to continue reading, a decrepit
cemetery, a weathered marble vault, a tree, a dim yellow light in a
bell tower, weedy fields, and books. And I am enormously grateful
for the many joys and gifts they have brought to my life.
am a retired Teamster Dock Worker. I was born and raised in
Lorenzo, California, but spent the summers of my youth in the small
township of Coal Creek, Colorado. I attended College for 12
years not in pursuit of a degree related job, but because I wanted to
take classes in as many disciplines as possible before working career
wise in the blue collar occupation. To pay for my tuition
during those college years, I worked as a dish washer, checker in a
grocery store, assembly line worker in a sheet metal factory,
janitor, shelf stocker on the 12 a.m. 8:30 p.m. shift in a store, and
lastly working out of a Teamster Hiring Hall, loading and unloading
trucks in both freight and produce. My favorite reading quote
is by Larry McMurtry; "the great readers will always know about
books that neither the marketplace nor the academy has gotten around
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
story by John
Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher