You Are Who You Read
By Weston Ochse
I saw an article about Gary Paulsen in a trade magazine the other day and clipped it out. For years I’d been trying to think of the title of this book I’d read when I was young and there it was in the article. Hatchet.
Or so I thought.
You see, when I lived in New Jersey as an eight year old kid, I’d read this book that stuck with me. It was about a boy who was lost in the woods… you’ll have to forgive my memory. Some of the details are sketchy. The setting was the Catskills, which were not all that far from where I lived. As a kid in 1973, I had a pretty idyllic life– definitely a Bradbury Dandelion Wine time. I had the run of the small town we lived in, pedaling my bike furiously from one place to the other. I had one of those banana handle bar, ten dollar, indestructible bikes bought from a creepy guy at the edge of town who sold bikes and lawnmowers and probably hooch. My folks worked far away and I remember getting out of school, rushing home, throwing my books down and taking my bike everywhere. There wasn’t a trail in the woods I didn’t know. I knew of the special places, like the bushes with the broken beer bottles where I’d occasionally kneel and sniff like an animal, the smell of stale beer as foreign to me as it would be to any creature of the forest. I remember finding the skeleton of a small animal and storing it in a box that I buried in the woods; one which I’d come back to and investigate with the reverence of a Smithsonian scientist.
Then my mom brought home a book.
Hatchet is about a young boy who survives a plane crash in the Yukon, but that wasn’t the one I was thinking of. My Side of the Mountain is the one I’d read back then and damn, but that book affected me. This boy runs away from home and lives off the land in the Catskills for two years. He carved fish hooks. He made his own bowls. He was like a Jedi-Eagle Scout and I remember wanting to be him. Every time I’d pedal away from home after that I told myself that I could survive out there if I wanted. I could run away and be able to fish and eat and hunt just like that kid. There were times I almost didn’t come back. After all, I’d read the book, and like any How-to Manual, as long as I followed the directions of Jean Craighead George, I’d be able to survive.
The next year I read My Brother Sam is Dead. By James Lincoln Collier, I think this was the first book that made me cry. The novel thrust me into the American Revolution with the protagonist who lived and breathed 1775. I learned about patriotism, duty, loyalty and death. This novel truly affected me. Later when I was a father, this was a book I bought specially for my son, just so he could maybe experience some of what the book meant to me.
The next year we moved to Tennessee. This would be about 1975 when I was ten, or maybe the next year, I can’t be sure. I remember ordering a book from the weekly reader program. I brought the exact change in, put it in the envelope with the paper I’d filled out, and waited an impossible three weeks. When it came, I was astounded. For the life of me, I cannot figure out the title, though. I googled and searched, but I just can’t find it. But I can tell you the plot. The book was about a young boy kidnapped and taken to communist China by his father’s nemesis. The boy learns Chinese and the ways of the people. He’s treated as a second son by the Chinese man, but the boy knows better an always holds the hope of rescue in the back of his mind. Eventually his father comes and saves him. After a perilous journey, they both escape China. To this moment I can remember lines in that book. I know that you have to boil the liche nut to get it to make a dye so you can cover your skin.
Fast forward to now.
I’ve read thousands of books, but arguably, these three books I mentioned affected me more than any others. They directed my life. After twenty years in the Army, most as an intelligence guy who speaks Chinese, I can’t help but believe that each of those books had a major influence in my life. I can set a snare as easily as I can boil a liche nut. Sam taught me humanity, the same humanity I levied as a soldier bearing one of the greatest responsibilities a country can bestow.
It’s utterly amazing how books can influence us. And with that knowledge, I’m becoming more and more cognizant of what I write. There were times as I was learning my craft that I wrote pretty much anything that came to mind. And that was fair. After all, I was in the learning process. How could I learn without practice? But now I feel I have the bones to do about anything I put my mind to.
Recently, I was asked, wrote and had published a story that I took the greatest care with in the WW II anthology A Dark and Deadly Valley. I was concerned that, because I was writing about the immediate aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima, I might not do the horrible day justice. I spent an inordinate amount of time researching and trying to find the perfect way to write the story. Eventually I settled on a personal account by a survivor who’d related how he’d been waiting for a train in the station when the bomb had gone off. When he awoke, he and hundreds of other commuters were fused together, their skin melted by the blast. I decided to begin there. So far every review has pointed that story as a star of the book.
Hiroshima Falling is a story of which I’m proud. I couldn’t have written it ten years ago. I couldn’t have written it five years ago. I doubt I could have even written it two years ago. I think I’ve grown in my writing and in that growing found a way to see past the story to the
I hope one day I can write a story that will affect a child or an adult in the way those books affected me. I could have been a businessman, I could have been a doctor, or I could have been a priest. But those books, the amazing writing and characterization and description somehow wove their way into my subconscious and directed who I was to become.
To direct one’s future.
Now, that’s talent.
Incidentally, the rest of the Gary Paulsen article went on about how he was proud to be a teller of tales. So I’ll leave you with this: “I’m a teller of stories. I put bloody skins on my back and dance around the fire, and I saw what the hunt was like. It’s not erudite; it’s not intellectual. I sail, run dogs, ride horse, play professional poker and tell stories about stuff I’ve been through. And I’m still a romantic; I want Bambi to make it out of the fire.”
I think I’m a lot like Paulsen. I write about the stuff I’ve been through. Pretty much all of my writing is experiential fiction. I envy those who can create whole cloth plots from the ether. I can’t do that very well.
I’m not that guy.
And I’m not sure if I’m a Bambi guy, either.
But I am a romantic, and I’d give anything if Old Yeller would survive.