Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Another Strange Tale of a Book

I’m beginning to believe that the ownership stories that surround books like a penumbra are almost as wonderful as the things you find inside their covers. I’ve already told one tale of how a book moved from a man in New York City into the hands of a book dealer and into my own library and turned out to have belonged to the father of some very close friends who lived just down the road from me in Florida. That story gave me goose bumps. Now, another has made a shiver cross the back of my neck. It is a true story. You read it and tell me what you think of the coincidences.

When I was in college I had a friend called Chris. We never dated and I’m not sure all of the reasons why we didn’t but I did go out with one his close friends for a time and that may have been one of the reasons. He was very smart and we did have long talks about what we planned to do with our lives, about politics, about books, and about lots of other interesting things. When I left school he had to go into the Army for his reserve tour and I moved on into my television career and I only saw him once after that.

He was in law school in California and I was at KRON-TV and we had lunch, and after he went away, I said to myself, well that person is clearly never ever going to ask me out on a real date, so the heck with him! A few weeks later I met someone and fell in love and in due course I got married. And that was probably the last time I thought of Chris for thirty years. It was very likely the last time he thought of me as well, as he too got married soon afterward.

I worked in San Francisco, Washington D.C. and then Florida television, losing a husband and gaining a writing career along the way. In 2006, I applied for and won a research grant to do biographical research on the life of a former best-selling writer called Irving Bacheller. He died in 1950 and his literary fame did not outlast his life. But he had written quite a few of his best-selling books in Winter Park, Florida, been on the board of Rollins College and on the boards of several banks, and these things made him interesting, at least, to local history.

His books are all out of print, but you can occasionally find them in used bookstores and garage sales, but I don’t think I’d ever seen one with a dust jacket—dust jackets being the real prize in book collecting. One of his cover artists was the great N.C. Wyeth, and that in itself should suggest the stature he had with his publishers back in the day.

I made my final presentation to the Smith Grant Board and we were all pleased with the story we uncovered of Bacheller’s life. It is true, his literary fame had not survived, but his life had been one of great service to the state of Florida. He had even saved a Winter Park bank during the Great Depression by pledging his own personal fortune. His story was very much a “Wonderful Life” kind of tale.

So, when I began to build my Web site and my blog, I tossed in a little bit about old Irving Bacheller. I had one more lecture to give about him and it gave me an excuse to tell a few stories.

About this same time I got an email from my old friend Chris. It had bounced around the Internet for eight months and finally landed in my electronic “in box.” We exchanged hello-how-are-yous: he had been married thirty years and had grown children and I told him about my television career, my divorce, and my new work in writing. I didn’t talk about my research grant or Irving Bacheller. The old faded writer just didn’t come up in our abbreviated catch-up email chit chat.

I wasn’t a good correspondent with Chris. My family issues out West have left me with little emotional capital to spend on happily married men who used to have long talks with me in college. So, for a month or so, wicked me--I didn't even answer his last email.

Last week I returned from California as wrung out as an old dishrag. I had been fighting with my mother. I had seen my beloved father deconstructing before my eyes. And I had the flu. So, I went to bed with a bottle of Advil for several days, and then finally got hold of myself and dragged the old corpse to my P.O. Box.

In the box was a check for some of my books, always a nice thing. And, there was a package from Chris. Inside the package was an old book. Before he had been able to reach me by email he had read odds and ends about me on the Internet and I’ll let him tell the rest, the way he did in his enclosed letter:

“One spring weekend, I found myself in the garage, making another of my periodic efforts to get rid of “stuff” that we have collected over the years. Among the “stuff” I particularly have a hard time getting rid of are books. My appetite for books always exceeds my capacity, and I have a very difficult time getting rid of, in particular, a book that I have not yet read. Anyway, among the books that I started to put in the “donate” pile was the enclosed. It looked old, was clearly something I had “inherited” rather than purchased and I could not quite figure out where it had come from. Had my Dad bought it as a young man, particularly as he had grown up in Florida and attended the University of Florida in the 30s--well after the book had been published? But no. The book had two old bookmarks in it, both of which had left discolorations inside and showed that the book had been purchased long ago at the Caravan Book Store in Los Angeles. Weird. I set the book aside, as I thought it may have been authored by the guy I had read you were doing research on, but at the time I was not sure it was the same guy, nor did I know if I would ever hear from you.

Several days later, as I was continuing my garage clean-up efforts, I came across a Robin Chapman letter from long ago, which you will find inside the cover of the book. It was among the stuff from my Army days. Being a silly old man, I re-read the letter and with the Bacheller grant notion in the back of my mind was struck by your comment in this old letter that, ‘I’ve decided I would like to write a biography of someone one day—if only I could figure out who. Any suggestions?'"

The book Chris had enclosed was a first edition of Irving Bacheller’s 1919 A Man for the Ages, a book Bacheller wrote about the young Abraham Lincoln. And wow, it had a dust jacket! It was the first Bacheller one I had seen and it was a beauty: a color-tinted lithograph done by Brandywine Valley artist John Wolcott Adams, a descendant of the two presidents. Adams was an especially appropriate choice for a cover artist on a book about Lincoln. The entire story of this book was beginning to seem pretty wonderful and strange. As my old-and-only-recently-mysteriously-reappeared friend Chris put it:

“Crazy series of events, huh? If they had not happened in the order that they did, I probably would never have connected them. I could easily have disposed of the book or your letter any number of years ago. But I didn’t. And when I read your web page about Bacheller, it just all connected up.

By the way: I never have figured out where the book came from nor how it got into my garage.”

Thus, my second Strange Tale of a Book. My friend Chris, lucky, kind, and happily married, continues to find Robin completely resistible. But this old man, Irving Bacheller--now that guy just won’t leave me alone.
Irving Bacheller--he must be the perfect old geezer for me.

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Lena said...

That is a really cool story.


To Ms. Robin Chapman

Another episode of the lost and found book. Enjoyed. But let me say that I was nearly shocked to read one of the sentences you have written simply, very simply: the sentence is, "I worked in San Francisco, Washington D.C. and then Florida television, losing a husband and gaining a writing career along the way."

Let me add one sentence, Madame, 'Losing a spouse is never so simple.'

Naval Langa

Robin Chapman said...

Ah yes, Naval, you have caught me.