Wednesday, September 23, 2009

My uncle, Aristotle and Dick Tracy

It’s a summer evening in the late 1950s. My uncle and I are in the library at St. John Fisher College.

He and I are the only ones there. He runs the place and has his own office. The office includes an intercom. He has been known to open the intercom, hold a paper bag next to it and squeeze it so that it makes crunching noises that can easily be heard by his secretary, the loyal but long-suffering Dorothy Kalb.

And he also has been known to drop water balloons out the window.

I myself have not been witness to these shenanigans, but my brother Michael, who once also stayed with Unk for a few days, remembers them well.

My uncle is a Catholic priest and a published poet, and he has done a lot to build up the library’s collection through connections he has in Canada, which include Marshall McLuhan.

My uncle also has a portable TV in his office. I’ve never seen a portable TV before. It is red, and tonight its offerings include an episode of “Men Into Space” starring William Lundigan, who is from our hometown. (Michael got his autograph once at the airport.)

As impressed as I am by the TV, right now I’m probably looking at a book. I’ve been staying with Unk for a day or two. As Mrs. Kalb was driving us on the Thruway, from my hometown to Rochester, I little suspected that Unk had a Hidden Agenda.

For although I have not yet set foot in kindergarten, I already know how to read. I don’t know how I know how to read; my guess has always been that, as a sickly kid, I picked it up watching TV game shows like “Concentration.”

I am the Wonder of the Neighborhood. One neighbor lady, who suspects some kind of trickery, sometimes shoves a magazine under my nose and asks me to read an article out loud, which I do.

Because of all this, Unk thinks I’m a genius, not realizing that although I can read stuff out loud, that doesn't mean that I can understand what I'm reading, and very often I don't.

He’s aiming to indoctrinate me into the kinds of things that a 5-year-old Genius should know.

Like the works of Aristotle.

It’s not that he expects me to read the original Greek, or even a translation; he just tries to teach me some of Aristotle’s ideas. It doesn’t work then, and I still don’t do all that well years later when an ethics professor tries to do the same thing to me in college. How disappointed Unk must have felt when, later during my visit, I made him buy me a Dick Tracy comic book.

(One time, he signed me up for a kiddie book-of-the-month club which sent me a science book each month. When I showed no interest, he tried to cancel the subscription. When the books somehow kept coming anyway, my uncle, whose name was Robert H. Flood, at least bent one of the commandments and wrote a letter to the book company, posing as a a friend of R.H. Flood and relaying the sad news that Father Flood had recently dropped dead. That did the trick, though it might later have led to a week in Purgatory.)

My big interest at this point in my life is geography. Every week my parents buy the latest volume of the Golden Book Encyclopedia at the grocery store. Even now, I remember these books fondly – wonderfully well-designed, with bright colors and maps of the states and countries, with the little icons denoting cattle ranches, factories, etc.

My uncle and I are alone until a student walks in. I remember talking to him. My uncle will later say that I said, “Can I help you?”

I recall that the guy said he needed to talk to my uncle.

My uncle asks him what he wants.

The guy says something like, “I’m looking for ‘Egypt during the War.””

My uncle says, “Ask the kid.”

The student says, “Ask the kid?!”

My uncle says something like, “Mark, could you go over to that shelf over there and find the book he’s looking for?”

“Yes, Uncle Bob!”

I go over, find “Egypt during the War,” bring it over and hand it to the student.

The student says, “This kid reads?”

My uncle says, “Doesn’t everybody?”

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