By Susan Chapek
This Independence Day holiday wasn't going to be about books or writing—or so I thought. It would be about Uncle George's funeral.
Uncle George first saw combat on the beach at Normandy. He was wounded that day, and four more times during his year in Europe. He came home with three Bronze Stars, four Purple Hearts, and a metal plate in his skull.
At the funeral Mass, the priest summed up that part of my uncle's life with picture-book simplicity and clarity: George Doyle made the world what it is today.
Yet I was almost twenty before I even learned exactly where and when Uncle George served. (He didn't avoid the subject—or the memories. He and Aunt Kay visited Normandy a number of times after he retired. And he was active in several Veterans' groups. But he didn't jaw about it, either.)
No, the Uncle George I knew as a kid was a union printer at the World Publishing Company's Cleveland shop. World published many beautiful children's books; occasionally, Uncle George was able to snag a carton of "imperfects," and some of them came to me!
My favorites were part of the Rainbow Classics series—Twain, Alcott, Swift, Hans Christian Andersen, Johanna Spyri. Each was generously illustrated with drawings and colored plates by artists like Louis Slobodkin, Nettie Weber, and Cleveland muralist James Daugherty. I devoured them. Since I owned few books, I returned to the Rainbows over and over again—and they stood up to repeated reading. They taught me the joy, not only of reading, and of reading the stuff that has endured through centuries, but of re-reading.
These were books I would never have possessed, but for him. Maybe I would never have discovered them. They were beautiful, unabridged editions. Some of them were a lot to chew. The illustrations matched each writer's voice and were the opposite of kidlike—Howard Simon's scrawls for The Prince and the Pauper looked rough and raw as Twain's England; Jean O'Neill's fairies were dark and light, sly and innocent all at once—like Andersen's tales. And R. M. Powers' Gulliver scenes repelled and puzzled me as much as Swift's cynicism. But if World Publishing thought a book should interest me, then by golly I would figure out why, if it took me my whole life.
(Was it my dogged determination to find something to love about Jonathan Swift that made me relish Uncle George's own sharp, sarcasm-based sense of humor—something that my sibs often found intimidating? Maybe. Certainly Swift helped kindle my lifelong delight in reading and writing satires.)
So as the Mass went on I found myself thinking about books after all, about Uncle George and books. And by the time the bagpipes played him out of church, I had realized for the first time that by connecting me with the classics, Uncle George made me what I am today.
Ave atque vale, Uncle George!