Blame my grandmother’s basement for making us travelers
When I stayed with my Grandmother White, I shared a double bed in the upstairs bedroom with my sister Kelly. We were both afraid to stay up there unless the two of us were there, snuggled together. The lonely bedroom was reached by a steep flight of wooden stairs lined with faded portraits of unknown family members in ornate frames, one of the sepia-toned, posed photographs being a woman reputed to smoke a pipe.
My grandmother’s house was perfect, in my mind. A wide porch swept across the front like a smile, with a wooden swing on one end. There was no front yard to speak of, but there was a sidewalk following Second Street, which bisected downtown. In those days, kids were able to roam freely, so her location was perfect because we were close to the candy counter at Woolworth’s, where I bought small white bags of candy corn.
The best part of her house, though, was the basement. There were two bedrooms downstairs, both with linoleum floors perfect for playing jacks or pick-up sticks with my sister. There was almost no furniture in the bedrooms, just stacks of old magazines and Christmas ornaments.
The real appeal of my Grandmother White’s basement, and the magic carpet that swept me off to faraway places, was the dusty bookcase located in a corner by one of the basement’s two bedrooms. There, I found a ragged copy of Richard Halliburton’s Complete Book of Marvels. It is really impossible to describe the importance to my family of this tattered tome, with its bright green cover marked by nothing but the title in brownish letters. I have this book on my shelf today, much to my siblings’ dismay should they find out.
This book was our lodestone, our Bible. Inside, on the flyleaf, Grandmother White’s precise handwriting spells out, “This book belongs to Jackie L. White.” The volume came out in 1941, when my father was 10 years old. I can imagine him curled in a corner reading — he always had a book in his hands — and dreaming about the places he would go when he grew up and left Dodge City in western Kansas. Daddy might have had a hard time learning to read, but once he started he devoured the written word.
The Complete Book of Marvels was a compendium of Halliburton’s travels, a compilation of earlier books about the Orient and the Occident, as he called them. He traveled everywhere and did everything, including swimming the length of the Panama Canal and paying just 36 cents in tolls. Unfortunately, Halliburton died at sea before this volume came out.
Below Daddy’s signature, another scrawl proclaims, “This book now belongs to me, Jacque L. White, daughter of Jackie L. White,” followed by another declaration that “This book now belongs to me, Kelly S. White, daughter of Jackie L. White.” Then comes Steven K. White, and Bruce A. White, and Brent E. White. But that’s not all; sibling rivalry is graphically illustrated on the flyleaf at the front of that marvelous book. “STILL MINE” announces a sibling whose signature I can no longer read where the ink is worn away by age.
The value of Richard Halliburton’s Book of Marvels is most evident on the yellowed title page. There, my mother has written in red ink, “For Bruce, Christmas 1983, Love Mom and Dad.” That was the Christmas when things went south for Daddy and there was not a penny to spend on presents. For me, my mother attached a quilt top made by my great-grandmother to white backing with yarn, with some batting in between.
On the shelf beside Richard Halliburton’s book were every one of the Tarzan novels, the real ones written by Edgar Rice Burroughs. At least there were a bunch of them, but I don’t remember how many. Of course I read every one, although the only title I remember is Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar, a rousing tale about a secret colony of the lost continent of Atlantis, where descendants of the Atlanteans continue to mine gold in Africa.
That corner in the basement was where my four siblings and I learned to yearn for faraway places, so you can blame Richard Halliburton for our wanderlust. I can’t even count all the places we’ve seen. I’ve strolled the streets of Vina del Mar in Chile, sunned on the beach in Sitges in Spain, climbed a Mayan pyramid in Palenque and bought amber in San Cristobal de las Casas, both in the Mexican state of Chiapas. And I’ve toured the old city in Cartagena, Colombia. I’ve also been to England, Spain, France, Germany and Switzerland.
In total, I’ve been to 11 countries myself, and my brothers can probably top that since they joined the Navy to see the world. The propensity for wanderlust seems to have seeped into our genetic profile, because my children have traveled to every continent but Antartica. My daughter says that’s on her list, and I’m sure she’ll get there someday.
So thank you, Richard Halliburton. Thank you very much.