Everymutt versus Bilbo
by Byron Bailey
During the first three grades of elementary school, a mangy mongrel panted the life out of reading for me. Reading outside of the classroom never happened. Reading inside the classroom only occurred with the teacher hovering over me, her lips pursed in detached concern like an entomologist contemplating a broken-winged moth.
Blame the reading class textbooks! Every year’s reading featured the “adventures” of Everymutt. Pug, Spot, Rover — the name didn’t matter. Everymutt never made messes on the sidewalk. Everymutt never bit children. Everymutt never attacked postal employees. Everymutt never did much of anything but run, eat and chase balls. By exemplary behavior, Everymutt managed to transcend his canine nature like a Buddhist monk living off of ethereal fumes. To a six-year old, nothing was as boring as an enlightened dog.
Even when I tried to read a book that wasn’t part of the standard curriculum, Everymutt was with me — no one could say that Everymutt wasn’t loyal. I could feel him panting on the page, his breath saturated with dog food. My throat would spasm under the onslaught until only a thin, wheezing streamlet of air entered my lungs. My eyes would water, a fog of dog breath obscuring the words on the page. Occasionally, the fog would thin enough for me to barely make out the occasional word or phrase.
A boy and a girl always accompanied Everymutt. The boy John/Jim/Joe had no hobbies except for making Everymutt chase balls. The girl always bore the name Jane. She didn’t do much except for chasing after John/Jim/Joe and Everymutt. Still, I waited patiently for Jane to leap into action. Many boys might be content to throw balls all day but no one could be satisfied with simply watching. Unfortunately at that age, I wasn’t familiar with the concept of professional sports.
I waited three years for Jane to act. In the third grade when she became friends with Jill, I was certain the time was close. After all Star Wars didn’t get truly interesting until Darth Vader showed up. I waited expectantly. As the months rolled by, my hope dissipated in a cloud of chagrin. Under Jill’s influence, Jane stopped chasing anyone. Now she only talked about chasing someone.
The beginning of the second grade arrived, a bright day with the scent of fresh cut alfalfa lingering in the air. My heart couldn’t help but flutter eagerly. With a new grade level came a new textbook. Undoubtedly, the teachers had been saving the interesting reading for the second grade.
On that first day, I took the new textbook home and read it straight through. The scent of dog food grew overpowering, quashing the remnants of alfalfa in the air. The difference between first and second grade existed solely in the size of the words. Everymutt ran after balls a lot less and started hanging out at the park. While at the park, though, he never encountered and bit Jeremiah Jr., the fifth grader who liked to smile at Jane while shoving John/Jim/Joe’s face into the sandbox.
“Never ever write in your textbook. Only write in the workbook.” Those were the often repeated words of Mrs. Davis, my second grade teacher. She didn’t have to worry about me. How could I write in the textbook if I never opened it again? Unfortunately I did have to open it for out-loud reading. When my turn came, I usually lost my place under the accompanying cloud of dog fog. I answered all of the questions in the workbook from memory of that initial reading. Towards the end of the year when my memory grew dim, my reading grade suffered.
Third grade reading was the same. However, a glimmer of hope came in the form of Social Studies class. Long live the South American Yanamamo and the Kalahari Bushmen! For the first time, a book exposed me to words that formed intriguing images in my mind: headhunting, giraffe hunting, loincloths and nose piercing. However, I made no association between the delightful images in my mind and the process of reading.
My reading career looked dim at the end of third grade when my father brought home The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein. I glared at the book suspiciously, loathing engulfing my gut. Books were the enemy, antithetical to all that was fascinating: ancient cultures, rock collecting, dinosaurs and astronomy.
My father opened the book to a picture of a goblin, its sword glinting evilly. I stared in fascination at the green, warty skin. The spiked helmet stirred my mind with a dark foreboding and something that no book had ever been able to instill in me before: curiosity. I desperately needed to know why the helmet in the picture looked fierce while the pots and pans my friends impressed into “military” service looked silly. My father dropped the book on the kitchen table and walked into the living room to watch Archie Bunker.
Without Archie Bunker, I would probably be near illiterate to this day. The only shows possibly more boring were Lawrence Welk and “Hee Haw.” All three combined made up the dreaded triumvirate of eight-year old evening television.
My fingers trembled as I reached for the book. It was either read or go outside and scour the ground for agates to add to my rock collection. I was tired of looking for agates, though. Agates were fascinating in their scintillating transluscence but not worth much more than pig cracklings. Gold was what I wanted. Unfortunately, the nearest source of water for panning was an irrigation ditch a mile away. It was strictly forbidden for fear that I might drown.
I didn’t start reading at first. I simply flipped through the pages while noticing the pictures. Then I saw what my greedy little heart desired most: an enormous pile of gold coins. On top of the pile sat a lizard-like creature, perhaps a twisted cross between a Brontosaurus and a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Gold, dinosaurs, and helmets — the combination was irresistible. I started reading and discovered a new world of hobbits, elves, dwarves, goblins, and dragons. If I could only find my own ring of invisibility like Bilbo Baggins, hero of The Hobbit, my gold problem would be solved. If my parents couldn‘t see me, they would never be able to stop me from panning the tons of gold undoubtedly lying in the irrigation ditch.
I didn’t stop reading but went on to J.R.R Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. Then I devoured every work of fantasy or science-fiction in the local one-room, public library. Tarzan of the Apes, John Carter of Mars, and Conan of Cimmeria traipsed through my imagination. I eagerly looked on the shelves for anything by Fritz Leiber, Roger Zelazny, and Andre Norton. Finally, I discovered the greatest fantasy writer of all: William Shakespeare. Kings, witches, ghosts, and fairies — how delightful!
Many suppose that the adventures of Bilbo Baggins ends with The Lord of the Rings. I know this assumption to be false. Every time I start reading Saint Augustine or Aristotle and catch that first whiff of dog food, I feel Bilbo’s presence at my side, ready to fling a rock at the first canine to come into view. Naturally, he’s wearing his ring of invisibility.
Copyright © 2004 by Byron Bailey