This is a Page Chaser Author Guest Post by Sean of the South (Sean Dietrich).
The first time I fell in love, I was in fourth grade. My romance was an incurable one. But then, I was an incurably weird kid.
Looking back, I suppose I had no choice but to be a weirdo. After all, my mother cut my hair. And she only knew one hairstyle, which was made popular by the United States Marine Corps. I was also awkward, overweight, and had a head full of painfully red hair. Still, I was in love. And I was in love with Mark Twain.
Admittedly Samuel Clemens and I were an unlikely couple. For starters, I was nine or ten. He was pushing 157. But from the first time I met him, our relationship just worked. The first of his stories I ever read was from a library book. The story was titled, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”
Oh, the tale was ridiculous. It was irreverent, nonsensical, and perfect. I fell so deeply in love with this man that I committed blackhearted thievery and stole that book from the library.
Today most people probably wouldn’t care about a story involving frogs. To be fair, it is a little hard to understand because of the outdated language. I read somewhere that today’s Americans have base vocabularies of about ten thousand words, not including ones like photobomb or poo emoji. Twain’s frog story, however, was published in 1865 when average Americans had 323 septillion words in their vocabularies.
It was a different time. Back then people could use funky words like wherefore, thereupon, and betwixt with totally straight faces.
It was also an era that was particularly hellish for America, which makes the frog story even more special to me. It was written amid a national crisis.
Try to imagine this time in history. The West was still wild. The East was still building smokestack factories. Pioneers were still traveling great distances betwixt two places with their families, blazing untamed wilderness in search of land, opportunity, and free Wi-Fi.
Lincoln was in office, the Civil War was in full swing, and 620,000 men were dead. Wherefore the newspapers were reporting on nothing but bloodbaths in each issue.
People along the Mississippi River were dying of cholera right and left. There were 4,500 dead in Saint Louis; 3,000 in New Orleans. And just when it couldn’t get any worse, Lewis Caroll wrote one of the creepiest children’s books ever published, titled Alice Must be Trippin’.
Are you with me here? To summarize, 1865 was a year that was scary, deadly, depressing, bloody, and horrific, and the bestselling children’s book could have been penned by Jimi Hendrix.
Just when it couldn’t get any worse, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.
Okay, so now imagine that one chilly, depressing morning you toss open your newspaper to see a lighthearted story about a frog-jumping contest. This silly tale lifts your spirits. It makes you smile. You actually have a good day after reading it.
I’ll pause here because you’re probably thinking: “What is the point? If I wanted a history lesson, I would’ve repeatedly slammed my head in a textbook until I required major reconstructive facial surgery.”
But there is an important reason I’m telling you this. I’m telling you because Mark Twain cheered me up.
When I discovered him, I was living through hell too. I was in desperate need of goodness. My life sucked ditchwater. My family had no money. My mother worked all the time to pay the bills. My father committed suicide. People sort of blackball you when the word suicide appears in your family narrative.
During this period of my life, I did a lot of reading. Not because I was smart, cuz bleeve me, I ain’t. I read because it lifted me. I read because it took me away from this earth. I read because Mark and I had a good thing going.
I read so often, in fact, that my mother grew concerned about me always hiding in my room reading. I could stay hidden for days, only emerging to eat an occasional Hostess product.
So that’s pretty much what I did. Entire years went by, and I must have read everything Samuel Clemens ever wrote. Almost daily I would drift off into his perfectly described worlds. I would float upon his Mississippi; I would lie upon his log rafts, gazing at his stars. And I would have been happy to stay in his world forever.
But my mother wouldn’t have it. In a last-ditch effort to bring me back to reality, my mother devised a grand scheme—one of her biggest to date. I’ll never forget it.
Early one Thursday morning my mother burst into my bedroom. She removed the hardbound book from my hands and announced at the top of her voice: “We’re going on a trip. You’d better hurry up and pack your things. You have an hour.”
“Hurry and pack?”
“Make that fifty-nine minutes.”
“Where are we going?”
“Fifty-eight and a half.”
This woman had lost her mind. She had taken a week off work and crammed our rusty station wagon full of coolers, beverages, and Twinkies. She offered no explanation. No hints. I shoved my clothes into a cardboard suitcase and met her in the driveway.
Thereupon she lodged me and my sister in the front seat betwixt coolers and suitcases, and off we went.
We drove for what felt like ten years across a landscape of mostly prairie farmland until we arrived in a tiny town called Florida, Missouri. When my mother pulled into a dusty parking area, she shut off the engine and looked at me like she’d just discovered teeth.
She said, “Do you know where we are?”
I shook my head. It looked like the edge of nowhere.
“Can’t you guess where we are?”
“No. I can’t.”
This ticked her off. Mama was already out of the car by then. I leapt out of the front seat to join her. My sister stayed in the front seat and ate her fourteenth Ding Dong.
After a short walk, my mother and I arrived at an unimpressive stone pillar that stood alone in the middle distance and bore a bronze plaque. Upon the plaque were engraved words I’ll never forget: “Birthplace of Mark Twain. He cheered and comforted a tired world.”
I could not manage words.
My mother only smiled.
In my short lifetime there have been few instances in which I have truly been struck dumb. This was one such instance. All I could do was rest a hand on that shiny plaque. And there in a nondescript Missourian backwater town, it all made sense. I could see how hard my mother had been trying to reach her sad, fatherless, wayward teenage son. I understood immediately that this was her biggest attempt at saving my life. She was trying to help me find something beautiful in a mostly unbeautiful world. And she did.
“We’re standing on the same soil where he was born!” she said, trying a little too hard to be excited. “Isn’t this great? Isn’t it so wonderful?”
All I could do was nod.
My mother had taken a week off work, rented cheap motel rooms, and driven heaven knows how many hours. For me.
I could not think of anything worthwhile to say. My words would have only cheapened the moment.
We left Florida and explored the nearby town of Hanibal, Mark Twain’s hometown. And I saw it all. I saw the caves. I saw the antique houses. I touched a whitewashed fence. I watched a riverboat troll into a sunset on a Mississippi horizon like I had already seen a million times in my imagination.
Finally tired from the stupor of tourism, we ate a hamburger and fries from the tailgate of our rusted blue station wagon. Mama touched my hair with greasy fingers, and her face was happy. Her eyes were bright. I felt a prickle behind my nose and a stinging in my eyes.
Mama said, “No matter what happens in this world, Sean, give every day the chance to be the most beautiful day of your life.”
For many years I believed my mother was brilliant for choosing such poignant words and for having the canniness to use them at such a pivotal moment in my life. But later I learned my mother had committed blackhearted thievery.
For she stole those words from Samuel Clemens.
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