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A Boy & His Books

A card-carrying member of the Baby Boom Generation, I sprang screaming into the world at 5:00 p.m., January 3, 1953. McKinney, Texas, was the location and Tommy and Rosalee Hardin were my parents. My childhood was blue collar and conventional, at least by the standards of Colin County in the 1950s.

My first memory is sitting on the floor of my parents’ house, playing with my first Marx Alamo playset. (Yes, I later received a second one.) So I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know about the Alamo—and I always remembered it.

But that wasn’t all that unusual in that time and place. History was in the air; it lived on the big screen at the Ritz theatre on the square and on the small black-and-white box at home. Shows like “The Gray Ghost,” “Rawhide,” “Have Gun, Will Travel,” “The Adventures of Jim Bowie,”—and, of course, “Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier”—fired my youthful imagination. Oh sure, these versions were glorified, romanticized, even Disneyfied, but they sparked a flame inside me that has never gone out. Without Fess Parker and John Wayne, I probably would not be teaching history for a living. 

I was a long way from sophisticated, but I took three lessons from my childhood viewing: the past is important, those who inhabited it are fascinating, and I needed to know more about it.
Thus, began my lifelong journey.

Like I said, I wasn’t erudite or discerning. But that’s okay. A kid’s got to start somewhere, and popular culture—as lame and inaccurate as it was—placed me on the path. And I treasure those shows for that.

Like many boys who grew up in the late-50s and early-60s, I was also hip-deep in what some have styled, “Monster Culture.” Each week we rode our bicycles down to the corner drugstore to spend our allowances on fan magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland, Castle of Frankenstein, Creepy, and Eerie. Our parents worried about the allure of such morbid fare, predicting that reading “that trash” would scar us for life.

It didn’t.

But it did influence many of us for life. Monster kids knew something our parents did not. Publications like Life, Look, and Reader’s Digest were for the grown-ups. The monster mags: those were just for us.

Every Saturday night those of us in the Dallas-Fort Worth area (no one called it the Metroplex then) sat glued to our televisions to watch “Nightmare.” In 1957, independent station KFJZ, Channel 11, purchased the SHOCK horror film package from Screen Gems and began airing 30’s and 40’s horror movies. Local celebrity Bill Camfield portrayed the host of the show, Gorgon—a menacing character with a deliciously malevolent cackle.

Gorgon introduced me to all the Universal classics, Bela Lugosi’s “Dracula” Boris Karloff’s “Frankenstein,” and Lon Chaney, Jr.’s “The Wolf Man.” He also sowed within me a fascination for the eerie and the macabre. Bill Camfield led tragic life; he departed this realm too soon. But he left an indelible impression on me and thousands of other North Texas Baby Boomers. Some have asked, “Where did you come up with the idea for Texian Macabre? Two words: Bill Camfield.

In 1962, Aurora Plastics Corporation of West Hempstead, New York, released the first of its Universal Monster model kits. “The Wolf Man” was the first I bought and built. I glued the right hand on the left arm and the left hand on the right arm. Looking at finished figure, I wondered, “Why are his thumbs on the outside?” I was able to pry them off and finally sorted it out, but building that kit taught me a valuable lesson: Read the freakin’ instructions! Looking back on it many, many years later, I believe that lesson alone was worth the ninety-eight cents I paid for the model. I still recall the fun I had building and painting those Aurora monsters. Those kits began a lifelong passion for modeling, which remains my only hobby. Thanks, Aurora!

I spent my formative years in McKinney’s public schools. I was an indifferent student. I can still recall Miss Reeves, my third grade teacher at Fanny Finch Elementary School telling me, “Stephen, history’s all well and fine, but you can run a thing into the ground.” Fourth grade was a nightmare. Miss Townsend was a stereotypical old maid schoolmarm. She even had blue hair. But she was a hard-nosed, dedicated teacher. Finally, it became a test of wills. She was determined to teach me something other than history; I was determined she wouldn’t.

I won.

I never memorized my multiplication tables. But, you know what, it didn’t matter. If I ever need to know what 12 X 9 is, I consult the calculator on my I-phone. So take that Miss Townsend! (By the way, it’s 108. So there.)

For fifth grade, God sent me Mrs. Robinson. (No, not that one, this was way before Simon and Garfunkel.) And, boy, was I ready! Her message was, “Okay, kiddo, if you love history, go for it.” She never made me feel guilty for liking history too much. I believe in every kid’s life, there’s a teacher who makes a difference. In my life, it was Mrs. Robinson. I suppose I did, as Miss. Reeves complained, “run history into the ground,” and I dug myself into a deep hole. But because of Mrs. Robinson’s validation, I eventually found a Ph.D. at the bottom of it. I wish she had lived to see me become a history professor; I believe that would have pleased her. She was both liberating and memorable. I was at my desk in her class on November 22, 1963, when our principal, Mr. Edington, announced that President Kennedy had just been shot and killed in Dallas.

Terrible as it was, the Kennedy assassination proved a revelation to me. Heck, I had been to Dallas. Just a few years before, the Hardins had put on our Sunday clothes, piled into our ‘56 Chevy, and drove to Big D to view the road show engagement of John Wayne’s “The Alamo.” It appeared at the Capri Theatre, an old-fashioned movie palace on Elm Street, just a few blocks from the Texas Schoolbook Depository. I now understood that history did not always happen somewhere else. People made history every day, sometimes in your own backyard, and we were all witnesses to it.

I may have been a lazy student, but I loved to read. As an only child, books became my friends. Back in the 60s, kids enjoyed book series that authors wrote especially for them. Among these were the “Landmark,” “Signature,” and “We Were There” series. Margaret Cousins’s We Were There at the Battle of the Alamo—with Nicholas Eggenhofer’s marvelous illustrations—made a lasting impression. It placed me on my path. I read the covers off my childhood copy, but I recently acquired a first edition with a pristine dust jacket. It doesn’t demand a lot on the collector’s market but I don’t measure its value in dollars and cents. In my library, I have a “Shelf of Special Meaning.” On it, We Were There at the Battle of the Alamo has pride of place. Every time I see it—I remember. And I smile.

Like most kids, I confined my early reading to children’s books. Carol Hoff’s Johnny Texas was one that mesmerized me. I was about twelve when I felt moved to read a “grown-up” book—one in particular. Being a monster kid, I yearned to take on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It called to me like Moby Dick beckoned Ahab. But it also frightened me. Not the content, I thought vampires were cool. No, its length scared me, its bulk, the sheer “grown-up-ness” of it. After all, I was just a kid. Would I ever be able to finish a book that long? Would I even be able to understand the words?

I made a leap of faith. With my allowance money, I bought the 1965 printing of the Dell paperback edition and, with considerable trepidation, pitched in.


I could understand the words—although I’m sure much of Stoker’s sexual innuendo sailed clean over my prepubescent head. And I learned a valuable lesson: books for adults are just like books for children. They just take longer to read. I finished Dracula: all 416 pages of it. After all these years, I still remember the page count. Because reading Dracula marked a personal milestone. Once I conquered my fear of “grown-up” books, I never looked back. The entire library became my oyster and, boy, did I pry it open! That old Dell edition of Dracula also resides on my “Shelf of Special Meaning.”

For a town its size, McKinney boasted a decent public library but it could not claim a bookstore. What we had was a Gibson’s Discount Store. Those of a certain age can recall a time when the Gibson’s chain outfitted numerous small Texas towns. One would often hear folks say, “I need to run over to Gibson’s.” But, “Attention, Wal-Mart shoppers,” I never saw anyone go to Gibson’s in their pajamas. Just sayin” . . . In those days, it sold damn near everything: school clothes, tires, aspirin, mouthwash, and trade softcovers. Yes, Gibson’s sold books! Arrayed on revolving display racks were an assortment of Dell and Bantam paperbacks. Most cost fifty cents; the really thick ones sold for seventy-five cents. I don’t mean to be as snobbish as that sounds. Those cheap-ass Gibson’s paperbacks provided admittance into worlds I had never dreamt of.

Well within the limits of my weekly allowance, many of them marked me for life. It was at Gibson’s that I found my first copy of Floyd Gibbon’s The Red Knight of Germany, an 1927 biography of Great War fighter ace, Rittmeister Manfred von Richthofen. Hopelessly florid by modern standards (in my “Historical Writing” course, I cite it as an example of purple prose) it nonetheless sparked a lifelong fascination with World War I aviation. I followed up Gibbon with Quentin Reynolds’s They Fought for the Sky (1957), a rollicking description of the planes and the pilots of the first air war. Bantam also provided Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall’s Falcons of France (1929), the story of the Lafayette Flying Corps. By the time I discovered Jack D. Hunter’s novel, The Blue Max (1964)—and the 1966 movie—I was well and truly hooked. In my fevered imagination, Great War aces (and Ursula Andress) had replaced Universal monsters.

But it wasn’t always World War One. Other books Gibson’s supplied were Harold Lamb’s Genghis Khan: Emperor of All Men (1927) and Walter D. Edmonds’s deeply layered novel, Drums Along the Mohawk (1936). Lamb’s style electrified me. In fact, many years later, I borrowed the construction of one of his sentences for the first line of Texian Iliad.

On July 22, 1965, my world changed. On that date NorthPark center celebrated its grand opening. Since then I have visited Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London, the Vatican in Rome, and the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Even so, I don’t think any edifice has ever impressed me like NorthPark. Nowadays, malls litter the countryside. But in 1965, none of us had ever seen anything this ostentatious, this massive, or this utterly spectacular. Believe me, McKinney had nothing like this. At the time, it was the world’s largest climate-controlled retail center. It well and truly blew my twelve-year-old mind.

It wasn’t just the size and grandeur of the place, it was the stores. The shops exuded an urban sophistication light years removed from the drabness of my home town. One establishment especially captured my imagination: The John Bull Pub. The interior was like those I’d seen in the movies—dark wood paneling, heavy roof beams, and a rind of cheddar cheese on the bar for the gratification of the patrons. I knew I wasn’t really in Old Blighty but, damn, this was the next best thing! Moreover, it was probably as close as a kid from McKinney, Texas, was likely to get.

The John Bull Pub even served food and Mom said we could have lunch there. I thought that I had died and gone to heaven. I don’t recall what I had for lunch that day, probably some variation of a Plowman’s Lunch, but I have vivid memories of dessert. The waiter came round with a tray of exotic pastries. Mom inquired which one I’d like.

“Can I have one of those chocolate-covered hot dogs?”

“Honey,” she explained, “those are called éclairs.”

It was the first time that I’d ever heard the word, but I’ve remembered it ever since. Like I said, I wasn’t exactly sloppin’ over with refinement

As fantastic as the John Bull Pub was, the place that made the biggest impression sat right next door. As stores in NorthPark went it was tiny, but I’d never experienced anything remotely like it. It was a bookshop. Unlike Gibson’s, this was a business that sold nothing but books. I thought that was the coolest thing ever; fifty-four years later, I still do. Each time I returned to NorthPark, I’d make a beeline for it. I bought many treasured volumes there, some of which I still have. I can’t recall the name of the place. I wish I could, because that little shop next to John Bull Pub began my lifelong love affair with bookstores. Outside time spent with my family, my happiest hours have been spent perusing shelves for unexpected treasures.

If you’ve stayed with me this far, I know what you must me thinking: “All very interesting, Steve, but does this trip down Memory Lane have a point?” Yes, it does. As Alexander Pope observed, “As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.” The books I read as a boy molded the man I became.

I know the power of books. But it disturbs me that so few history books are available for children, volumes about people and events rooted in reality. Nowadays it’s all about fantasy and comic book heroes. Our kids and grandkids are growing up without examples and role models. I had “Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier;” my son had “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles;” my daughter had “Harry Potter.” Growing up, kids require cultural touchstones, but rarely get them. Perhaps that’s the reason young people seem so disengaged from their own nation and culture. They have no moorings in actual experience and are adrift on an ocean of make-believe. That is why I work so hard to make my writing assessable to young people. For, more than most, I am aware how effectively books can bend twigs.

Bend carefully.

Dr. Hardin lives in Abilene, Texas, with his wife, Deborah. Son, Walker, and Gretchen, their precious daughter-in law, live in Austin, Texas. Daughter, Savannah, resides in Denver, Colorado. Her parents frequently employ emotional blackmail to induce her to return to the sacred soil.