We are in New York City. In order to get here, we had a four AM wakeup call yesterday in order to catch our 7 AM flight from Seattle. (Yes, my friends, SeaTac is crowded at that ungodly hour of the day!) We got here, managed to stay up until 10 PM Eastern, went to bed, and slept for 12 hours, broken into two shifts for me.
I finally crawled out of bed at 10:10 with an 11:00 AM live Facebook shoot here in our hotel room. I have to say that I was shocked to discover there was no room service available at the Grand Hyatt this morning. What’s so grand about that? So while I hustled around with getting ready—showered, dressed, and made up—Bill, bless him, went downstairs and brought back coffee. Doing a coffee-free interview would have been impossible! It was a “Facebook Live” event, but it is posted on my Facebook page. Why it’s only available on Facebook is a question I can’t answer—those kinds of politics are above my pay grade.
So we’re having a quiet afternoon in our room getting ready to go to a cocktail party at 6 PM where I am due to be given this year’s Strand Lifetime Achievement award. Am I nervous? Yes. I’m perfectly at home on a stage with a microphone in my hand and a couple of hundred people in an audience, but cocktail parties scare the daylights out of me. I’m sure I’ll be fine, but still, I’m feeling a little nervous and a whole lot like Cinderella at the ball. As in, “They’re going to let me in, really? A little girl from a ’small mining town in the West?’”
Evidently. The house at 16 Yuma Trail in Bisbee where I grew up is a tumble-down dump these days, but it wasn’t when I was growing up there. In the Fifties, with access to free mine water that was being pumped out of the mines, the yard was a lush combination of green grass and heavily laden fruit trees. My mother spent hot August days each summer, canning quart after quart of peaches and apricots picked from our own yard. In addition to the ones she canned, you’d better believe there were still plenty of peaches and apricots left on the trees for kids to eat if they were daring enough to climb for them. So back then, the house and yard were tidy and neat—with no chickens wandering around either.
Behind the house was a building we called ‘the summer house’—a screened-in studio apartment essentially, where more than one set of newly weds set up shop. But when I was a kid, on Sunday afternoons, after whatever midday feast Evie served up, I often retreated there on my own, where I would lie on the bed and make up stories—super hero stories in which I often played life-saving, daring-do roles. That’s really where I started telling stories—in the summer house where I told stories to myself.
But where did I learn about heroes and heroism? That would be from my father, Norman, who, in the pre-TV days, often read to us aloud out of his beloved, reasury of the Familiar. He liked the funny poems–It was Six Men of Indostan; I had but Fifty Cents. And the sad ones, too: The Song of the Shirt; The Wreck of the Hesperus, but my all time favorite was Horatius at the Bridge by Thomas Babington Macaulay. On those Sunday afternoons, I’d sometime smuggle the book out of the house to read aloud to myself, and reading that one took more than an hour.
In it, as the Tuscan army, led by Lars Porsena, marches on Rome, all the intervening cities fall, one by one. At last as the victorious army nears the city, the only thing lying between the frightened residents and the approaching horde is the Tiber River where there’s a single bridge. The city fathers hold a council and decide to chop down the bridge, but the enemy’s army is too close. That’s the time when Horatius, the keeper of the gate steps up to the plate:
Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the gate:
‘To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods,
‘And for the tender mother
Who dandled him to rest,
And for the wife who nurses
His baby at her breast,
And for the holy maidens
Who feed the eternal flame,
To save them from false Sextus
That wrought the deed of shame?
‘Hew down the bridge, Sir Consul,
With all the speed ye may;
I, with two more to help me,
Will hold the foe in play.
In yon strait path a thousand
May well be stopped by three.
Now who will stand on either hand,
And keep the bridge with me?’
Who indeed? Two step up to help face down the three eager beavers from the other side who come to clear the path and fail. In the bloody sword battles that follow, one after another of the over-eager Etruscan attackers are cut down. At last, with the bridge giving way beneath their feet, the other two rush back, leaving only Brave Horatius standing on the far side of the river. When he’s there alone, someone says, cut him down.
Alone stood brave Horatius,
But constant still in mind;
Thrice thirty thousand foes before,
And the broad flood behind.
‘Down with him!’ cried false Sextus,
With a smile on his pale face.
‘Now yield thee,’ cried Lars Porsena,
‘Now yield thee to our grace!’
Round turned he, as not deigning
Those craven ranks to see;
Nought spake he to Lars Porsena,
To Sextus nought spake he;
But he saw on Palatins
The white porch of his home;
And he spake to the noble river
That rolls by the towers of Rome.
‘Oh, Tiber! father Tiber!
To whom the Romans pray,
A Roman’s life, a Roman’s arms,
Take thou in charge this day!’
So he spake, and speaking sheathed
The good sword by his side,
And with his harness on his back,
Plunged headlong in the tide.
No sound of joy or sorrow
Was heard from either bank;
But friends and foes in dumb surprise,
With parted lips and straining eyes,
Stood gazing where he sank;
And when above the surges
They saw his crest appear,
All Rome sent forth a rapturous cry,
And even the ranks of Tuscany
Could scarce forbear to cheer.
But fiercely ran the current,
Swollen high by months of rain:
And fast his blood was flowing;
And he was sore in pain,
And heavy with his armour,
And spent with changing blows:
And oft they thought him sinking,
But still again he rose.
Never, I ween, did swimmer,
In such an evil case,
Struggle through such a raging flood
Safe to the landing place.
But his limbs were borne up bravely
By the brave heart within,
And our good father Tiber
Bare bravely up his chin.
‘Curse on him!’ quoth false Sextus;
‘Will not the villain drown?
But for this stay, ere close of day
We should have sacked the town!’
‘Heaven help him!’ quoth Lars Porsena,
‘And bring him safe to shore;
For such a gallant feat of arms
Was never seen before.’
And now he feels the bottom;
Now on dry earth he stands;
Now round him throng the Fathers;
To press his gory hands;
And now, with shouts and clapping,
And noise of weeping loud,
He enters through the River-Gate,
Borne by the joyous crowd.
They gave him of the corn-land,
That was of public right,
As much as two strong oxen
Could plough from morn till night;
And they made a molten image,
And set it up on high,
And there it stands unto this day
To witness if I lie.
It stands in the Comitium,
Plain for all folk to see;
Horatius in his harness,
halting upon one knee:
And underneath is written,
In letters all of gold,
How valiantly he kept the bridge
In the brave days of old.
When my father died, I was the one of all seven kids, who inherited Norm Busk’s beloved Treasury of the Familiar. It’s a tattered old volume, given to him some ninety years ago, and the mangled cover is held together by duct tape.
But tonight, when I take a 20 minute cab ride from here to the Society of Illustrators to receive my lifetime achievement award, I’ll be carrying Norman Busk in my heart. He’s the one who gave me my first taste of the world of good guys and bad guys, and that’s what murder mysteries are all about—good versus evil.
Yes, I may be scared of cocktail parties, but I’ll pull myself together like brave Horatius and carry on.
Thank you, Gramps. In reading to us aloud, you gave me a precious gift, one that keeps on giving.