When I was eight or nine or ten, before we moved to North Carolina, I met a boy named Cam when our family went over to his family’s house on Mercer Island for dinner. Our dads worked together at a property appraisal company in Seattle. I still remember that evening. There was a girl the same age as my older sister, and another girl the same age as my younger brother, and Cameron was my age.
They had cool board games and we played lots of them that night. They were a fun family. My sister and the older girl didn’t develop any subsequent friendship, nor — understandably though perhaps not necessarily — did my brother and the younger girl, but Cam and I hit it off and were tight from the start. It is one of the only preteen friendships I ever had that I can remember the start of. It was this evening on Mercer Island. A forced dinner that none of us kids wanted to go to. We probably arrived at their house bickering, slamming car doors, dad mashing out a cigarette in the ash tray and mom giving us the Look That Put Down Back-Seat Rebellions, but when we left that night it was with promises that Cam and I would soon be allowed to meet up again.
To make this part of the story shorter, I’ll just say I was invited to spend a week at their summer house on Bainbridge Island. Yes, this is the OTHER Bainbridge family I mentioned when I was telling you about my island adventures with Kip and his family (here). I didn’t know Kip yet, and the little beach house Cam’s family lived in all summer on the west side of the island facing Rich Passage was my first taste of island life. Cam and I played on the beach for hours, and if it rained we played Monopoly and Mille Bornes and Yahtzee and made our own single serving pizzas out of bread, cheese and tomato paste. In the mornings we made French toast. Cam visited and stayed at our house, too, and even though I didn’t have a beach outside my bedroom window, we found stuff to do, and when it rained, we played Monopoly and Mille Bornes and Yahtzee and made triple-decker PB&Js. I loved Cam. I prayed every single night for years, Dear God, please let Cam become a Christian. (Looking back, I doubt that this monumental effort of sustained supplication was necessary on Cam’s behalf.)
When my family moved to North Carolina, Cam wrote me and I wrote him. Details about additions to our train layouts, mostly. His family sold their house on Mercer Island and bought a permanent house on Bainbridge, at the mouth of a narrow inlet. When we moved back to Bellevue, to the same house we lived in before because it hadn’t sold by the time we decided to go back west, I was old enough to ride the bus into Seattle and catch the ferry alone. Cam and I still played board games, but now we also spent hours crafting model train buildings from scratch, sometimes models of actual ones we went and studied. We also spent lots of time on the bay. After World War II the Navy had sunk some surplus landing barges right out in front of Cam’s house, and during low tides we’d row out there. We designed and built glass-bottomed boxes that we could lower over the side and stick our heads into, and with the water thus flattened we could see the rusty gunwhales covered with sponges and starfish sticking up out of the sand. We fitted the boxes with flashlights for night use. We would row far up the inlet at ebb, then ship the oars and put our boxes over, he at one end and I at the other, and drift back down with the current, watching the crabs clamber among the seaweed strands and surprised flounders suddenly fluttering off leaving a trail of disturbed sand. Once during a wicked storm we saw someone’s dinghy heading out of the bay by itself, and Cam and I donned raingear and hauled our own dinghy down to the water and chased the runaway boat down in waves that nearly overturned us.
By the time we were about fourteen, we were loading up the dinghy with sleeping bags and other supplies and rowing the sixty yards or so out to their family’s little sailboat, which was moored not far from the sunken barges. Swirls of light trailed after our oarstrokes as we disturbed what Cam told me was “phosphorescence”. Cam taught me a million sciencey facts like that and introduced me to a lot of fun things. And one of the things Cam introduced me to — one of the items that went into the dinghy whenever we spent the night on the sailboat besides the snacks and flashlights and pop — were Tintin books.
I had first encountered “the boy reporter Tintin” in Spanish class in seventh grade, when I saw a Spanish copy of The Adventures of Tintin: The Shooting Star among the magazines and other materials that were there for reading practice. Then one year, Cam had discovered them (in English!) and I got hooked, starting with The Secret of the Unicorn (not the first of the Tintin books but coincidentally the one that provides the story for a computer-animated Tintin movie being released right about now). We would take a few Tintins each out to the sailboat and read them by flashlight, snickering at the clumsy antics of the detectives Thomson and Thompson — such as when one of them stumbles going through a submarine hatch and gives a warning to the other, who carefully avoids tripping but bumps his head — or the mannerisms and English phrases we thought were so funny. Hergé, as you know, was Belgian, so his adventure comics were originally drawn and published in French, but their wild popularity since the appearance of the earliest ones in the 1930s* and 1940s demanded translation into many other languages.
My younger brother caught the Tintin bug from me and began, under my tutelage, to channel every character in the books — the humor was an uncanny match to his temperament. And hitting him just when it did it went deep into his young psyche. To this day if you listen carefully you’ll notice that Ben does not say three sentences in a row without inflecting his voice à la Tintin or Captain Haddock or Thomson (and/or Thompson) or our old favorite, Professor Cuthbert Calculus.
Ben collected almost the entire set of Tintin adventures in English. For some reason I did not own any in my teens (or maybe I did but Ben ended up with them), but I picked up a few German translations in Brussels long ago when I was a traveler — Der Blaue Lotus and Der Sonnentempel — and they’ve been kicking around my bookshelves ever since. Mara discovered them a few weeks ago and has become spellbound by them. She is not reading much on her own yet; she can sound out words and write a few things, but the font and the length of the words in the Tintin books are a challenge for her. And, oh, they’re in German. But she sits and stares at the pictures for long periods of time, studying the physical humor and facial expressions and gleaning much of the emotional subtext of the stories this way.
I was secretly thrilled. Setting aside the fact that the Tintin books are nowadays universally acknowledged to be a bad teaching tool for children because of flagrant racial and cultural stereotypes — Africans look like Al Jolson, for one thing — I am glad she is interested in the Tintin oeuvre. It provides a solid education in humor both subtle and slapstick. We can discuss the racial depictions with her, and we will. I’m less worried about that than I am about the violence that fills these cheery little books, the endless punching and gunfire. Mara has been pretty protected so far from images of weaponry and its use. We don’t have television reception, and we’re careful about what movies she watches. She’s lately gotten to be pals with several young boys, though, and playdates at Logan’s or Silas’ house are occasions of much zapping and whacking. She loves it all.
Oh well, so did I. I loved my little green army men and my pistol-packin’, rifle-totin’ Johnny West. I watched Batman and The Rifleman on TV and was weened on the visually addicting violence of Warner Brothers cartoons.
I took Mara out a few nights ago to buy her her first very own English Tintin book, Red Rackham’s Treasure (forgetting that it is actually the sequel to The Secret of the Unicorn). I have an idea that if she stares at the pictures long enough and is curious enough about the text, she’ll start sounding the words out and the books will actually be an enticement to start reading more on her own. Especially since she has such an infallible memory for exact phrasing. I read the book to her once (taking care to explain the comic conventions, such as: sweat drops = alarm; whirly lines above someone’s head = dizzyness; curly lines behind someone = scurrying) and she is already repeating whole sections of dialog.
I’m eager to see the fun Mara has, and then someday Millie, discovering the books’ best delights, how Tintin’s forelock only stays wet for a frame or two after he hauls himself out of a river and his clothes are likewise instantly dry, and how successive frames often contain little running gags, like the piece of “sticking plaster” that adheres to various passengers throughout a plane trip to Djakarta in…oh shoot, hey Ben, which one was that?
*The first book, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, was actually published in 1929.