Dad read books and sang songs to me when it was bedtime. He told me it was the favorite part of his day, to sit in the wood rocking chair across from my bed and together get “lost in a good story”, and then “raise our voices in song”.
We finally finished reading the Tom Sawyer book. I was sad when it was done, because I liked hearing about all the things that Tom did. I did my best to keep pretending I was Tom sometimes down in the basement or out in the backyard. I knew that Tom was special because his life was an adventure that was in a book.
“So Coop”, dad asked as he sat in the rocking chair, “What should we read tonight?”
So much thinking was going on inside my head that I was shy to try to say any of it in words. I wanted something that I couldn’t say the words for, so I said nothing and did not even shake my head for yes or no. Dad looked at me and nodded like he knew what I was thinking and then he got a big smile and his eyes got bigger.
“I almost forgot about the books you got for your birthday”, he said, like that was something really special.
I remembered the books. They had the interesting pictures with all the colors on the front part.
Dad reached over to the dresser next to the rocking chair and opened the door to the top part where there were a bunch of books next to each other the same way the books on his shelves were in his office in the basement. He pulled books out with one hand and put each on top of the other on his other hand. He brought them over to my bed and laid them out on my blanket. Then he picked up the rocking chair and put it next to my bed. He sat back down on it so we could both look at the books at the same time.
I looked at all the books with their words and pictures on the front and counted six of them. The words all started with the “Tom” word, which I recognized from the Tom Sawyer book. When mom used to read to me she would point out each word when she said it, so I recognized some of the other small words, like “and”, “his”, “in” and “on”.
“Let’s see what you have”, Dad said, pointing at each book as he read the name. “Tom Swift and his Jetmarine.”
Dad pushed his lips together because he was thinking as he looked hard at the picture. It looked like two people inside some sort of tube thing, one of them holding a wheel like you hold to drive a car. They were looking out a window at something with a head and big eyes and a bunch of tails but no body.
“Looks like two guys in some sort of submarine being attacked by a giant octopus”, he said. I had heard those words, “submarine” and “octopus”, before but didn’t really know what they were. I figured the tube thing with the window and the people inside must be the “submarine” and that weird thing with the eyes and all the tails was the “octopus”.
“Tom Swift and his giant robot”, he said.
I figured right away that the thing in the picture that looked kind of like a person but was gray and shiny with a can shaped head and buttons on its stomach must be the “robot”. The one person next to the robot was scared, but the other one, maybe that was Tom, was not. I recalled seeing older boys talking about “robots” and pretending that they were robots by walking and talking in a strange way.
“Looks like Tom is controlling the robot”, dad said, and he seemed happy about that.
Next he said, “Tom Swift and his rocket ship.”
I was struck by the picture of the long tube with wings and a window with Tom and someone else inside looking out as they went up in the air through the clouds. I had just seen a rocket shooting up in the sky on the television, so I knew that the fire coming out the bottom of the tube was making it go up.
“That’s quite an impressive rocket ship”, dad said, and when I looked at him he looked more like a kid than a grown up, and I could tell in his eyes that he was pretending things.
“Tom Swift and his diving Seacopter”, he said.
It was another different sort of round thing with windows with Tom and someone else inside, one holding a wheel for driving and the other holding some sort of poles. Outside it looked like there were strange fish so I guessed they were going under water. I guessed that the bubbles coming out of the top were making it go down in the water, like the fire coming out of the bottom of the rocket ship made it go up.
“Wow a sea copter”, dad said. “I wonder if it can go up in the air like a helicopter as well as underwater like a submarine.” I looked at him when he said that, and though he seemed to like it, but he looked more like a grown up than a kid.
“Tom Swift on the phantom satellite”, he said.
The picture looked like people in silver boots and gloves and bubbles on their heads were running on some strange dark place with a big circle thing above them with lots of holes in it. I had heard some grown ups talking about a “satellite” that the Soviet Union, the new bad guys instead of the Germans, had put way up in the sky going around the “Earth”, whatever that was. I wondered if that big circle thing was that satellite and they were scared. Suddenly I felt kind of scared. Dad didn’t say any more about that one and his finger moved to the last book on my blanket.
“Tom Swift and His Outpost in Space”, he said.
There were a bunch of what looked like rocket ships around a small thing that looked like a ball with maybe windows. There were maybe robots with bubbles on top and heads like people inside the bubbles. Some were standing on a rocket ship and others were flying above it. There was a big orange and yellow ball like thing in the back that looked like it was maybe on fire. I stared at the picture trying to make sense of it. Dad noticed my confusion.
“Looks like people in space in spacesuits”, he said, “Outside their spaceships by some sort of space station, orbiting another planet, maybe Mars.”
There was that “space” word that I kept hearing but I couldn’t figure out what it meant. There was space in the closet or the refrigerator, but also way up in the sky above the clouds. And like ships sailing in the sea, spaceships would sail in space and people would wear space “suits” instead of regular clothes. And now people wearing spacesuits and this space “station” thing.
I had gotten a “space helmet” for my birthday, which I put on my head sometimes when I was playing and wanted to pretend I was somebody special. Even older boys in the park talked about “space” and they were pretending to be a “spaceman”. I knew the word “helmet” because dad said that soldiers wore them in the war to keep their heads from getting hurt. He had shown me pictures from his big red war books of soldiers with those round things on their heads. But they did not have the part in front that you looked through like the space helmet.
“Which one should we read first?” dad asked.
All the pictures on the front of the books were making me think about so many different things, some of them scary, so I felt shy and did not know what to say, so I shook my head. I wondered if we too would have to run away from the Soviet Union satellite, but I didn’t say anything because I thought my dad might not like it if I said I was scared. He might tell me I had to be brave because he had been brave in the war.
“Okay”, dad said, nodding his head, “What about the rocket ship one?”
I nodded, my head moving up and down really quickly. The picture on the front looked more fun than the “phantom satellite” one.
Dad carefully put the other five books back in th my dresser. He was always careful when he did things with books. He moved the rocking chair back to across from my bed and sat down on it. I was hoping I would see that look like he was a kid again, but I did not see it.
He held the book in one hand and put the fingers of his other hand on the front part and slowly moved them down, finally grabbing the bottom of the front part with his thumb and opening it up. I knew he was looking at the picture of Tom just inside the front part, because I had looked at it before. I saw his eyes move back and forth to look at every different thing in the picture. I remembered that Tom was in a strange looking room looking out the window. There was a toy rocket and a toy boat. There were other toys in the room or maybe they were tools. And on the walls were circle things that looked like the ones in the car around the steering wheel.
“This must be Tom’s laboratory”, dad said, turning the book to show me the picture, “Where he does experiments and builds things.” I had heard those words “laboratory” and “experiment” before because Molly’s dad said them, but I didn’t know that was a place, and a place where you built things.
Dad turned the book back toward him and turned pages. He found the next picture, and his eyes moved again looking at it. I remembered that one too, and I remembered that I could not figure it out. Tom was wearing strange clothes and had one of those bubble things over his head. Maybe the bubble thing was a space helmet but it was different than mine. And Maybe Tom was wearing a spacesuit. He was standing on a circle thing with lots of smaller circles in it, or maybe it was a window.
“Tom’s hanging on”, dad said, “So he doesn’t fall into space.”
So that circle thing might be an opening that Tom could fall through into space. But what were those round things in space? There were so many things that I did not know yet!
Dad turned more pages and then stopped and looked at me for a moment and said, “Chapter one. A vanished pilot.” Then he looked back at the book and started reading it…
“Somebody’s flying into our restricted area!” Tom Swift cried as an alarm bell broke the midnight stillness of his rocket laboratory on Fearing island. The blond, eighteen-year-old scientist, tall and rangy, laid two wrenches beside the freshly machined, titanium metal column, the heart of the rocket, on which he had been working.
There were words that I did not know but I wanted to. But I did understand that Tom had a place, a laboratory, a rocket laboratory on an island. I knew about islands from Tom Sawyer and Treasure Island. They were places with the sea all around them or a river all around them. I had drawn islands with chalk on the basement floor or made one out of dirt in the backyard.
So Tom was building a rocket. He was a “scientist”, a word that I had heard before but did not know what it was. I knew I was three years old and he was a different years old, and seeing him in the pictures, that was a lot older than I was. That was why he was able to know so much. I knew what “tall” was, my mom and dad were tall and I was shorter but would be tall too when I grew up. “Blond” was the color of some people’s hair, Molly’s hair, but not mom’s, dad’s, David’s or mine.
Dad kept reading and I hoped I knew enough to follow the story, and was excited thinking where it might take me. If some parts did not make sense I was okay with that as long as there was enough so I could play Tom Swift down in the basement or out in the backyard.
I knew about airplanes from watching and playing Sky King with Molly. So some sort of airplane that was not supposed to was coming to the island where Tom’s laboratory was. So Tom and his friend Ben used their laboratory machines to capture it. But when it landed there was no one flying it. The pilot flying the plane had “bailed out”, whatever that meant, and might get to the island in the water. So “speed boats” from the laboratory went out in the water and “copters” went up in the sky looking for the pilot. Tom and some of his other helpers looked on the beach.
Tom was building a “rocket ship” to use in a race. Those two words together made sense because a regular ship had people on it and went on the water. A rocket ship had people on it but went up in the sky or maybe space. Airplanes went up in the sky too, but they looked different. They had big wings and went sideways instead of up.
So Bud flying in the copter saw the pilot who had been in the plane. Tom swam in the water and got the pilot who was wounded and had to go to the doctor. Then Tom called his dad to tell him what happened. Tom thought it was a “sabotage attempt”. I had heard that “sabotage” word on Sky King but did not really know what it meant. When dad read the word he stopped and looked at me.
“You know what ‘sabotage’ is?”
I shook my head.
“It’s when you secretly try to wreck something your enemies are building.”
“Coop. You can always ask me when you don’t know a word. I’m happy to tell you!”
I nodded again, faster this time.
So Tom had “enemies”. I knew what those were. Like pirates, or Germans, or Soviet Unions. Bud said that Tom was too important to be “bumped off”. Dad did not stop to tell me what that meant and I didn’t ask.
Tom and Bud were driving in their jeep and saw another man who had sneaked on the island.
“That’s the end of the chapter”, dad said, looking at me. “Shall we read some more?”
I nodded again, almost without even thinking first.
The story continued. Tom and Bud finally figured out that the man who flew the plane to their island was a bad guy, an enemy. He was trying to steal Tom’s “invention”.
“Do you know what an invention is?” Dad asked.
I shook my head.
“It’s when you figure out how to make something no one has ever figured out how to make before.”
I liked that. I wanted to make an invention. I would tell Molly about it and we would make inventions together. And dad read that Tom had a giant airplane that was a “flying laboratory” that helped him make inventions. I would tell Molly about that too. We could pretend that her bedroom was a giant flying laboratory for making inventions.
Mom was at the door, peeking into my bedroom. “David finally fell asleep”, she said, looking at dad, “I’m exhausted and going to bed.”
Then she turned and looked at me and had a big smile. “You like the new Tom Swift book?”
I nodded, and before even thinking said, “Tom makes inventions”.
“He does, does he?” she said, “I bet you’ll be making inventions too someday”.
I nodded and smiled too.
She looked at me but was not smiling anymore. “You know Coop, if you ever have an idea for an invention, you tell me or your dad and we’ll write it down for you so you won’t forget your idea later.”
Dad laughed just a little bit. Mom turned her head to look at him. “Eric, I’m convinced that bright young children are born with great ideas in their heads that get mostly lost because no one takes them seriously.”
“Got it Liz”, dad said, though he did not look like he wanted to get it, like he thought she wasn’t right.
Mom looked at him harder. She could always tell what dad was really thinking, even when it was different than what he said he was thinking.
“So Eric”, she asked, “How does Tom Swift compare with Tom Sawyer, from a literature point of view?”
“Well”, his face got friendly again. He looked at the cover of the Tom Swift book in his lap. “Victor Appleton the second is certainly no Mark Twain, but the story is engaging enough, for pulp fiction.” Then he looked up at her, “But my buddy Walter says the science is pretty good”.
“Hunh”, mom said nodding, her lips pushed together. “You read a lot tonight. Will you be coming to bed soon? I have something I want to talk to you about.”
“Sure Liz. Let Coop and I sing a song first.”
She nodded. Then she looked at me and made a pretend angry face. “It’s not fair. I wish I could carry a tune like your dad, but I always go off key.”
Her hand reached down and found my big toe under the covers and she wiggled it like dad did. “Good night sweetie. I love you!” She left the room and dad watched her. I could see he was doing lots of thinking.
Then dad put his hands on the back of his head and looked up. “I don’t really know any songs about rocket ships.” He continued to look up, thinking. I could see the way he opened his eyes a little bigger that meant that he finally thought of a song.
“How about this one?” He sang…
Off we go into the wild blue yonder
Climbing high into the sun
Here they come zooming to meet our thunder
At’em boys, giv’er the gun
Down we dive spouting our flames from under
Off with one hell-uv-a roar
We live in fame or go down in flame
Nothing’ll stop the Army Air Corps
It sounded like an army song from the war, but it was about flying airplanes. It was like ships shooting cannons at enemy ships only it was airplanes instead way up in the sky. It was what boys pretended to do so they could be brave when they were grown up men and fight the enemy.
Minds of men fashioned a crate of thunder
Sent it high into the blue
Hands of men blasted the world asunder
How they live God only knew
Souls of men dreaming of skies to conquer
Gave us wings ever to soar
With scouts before and bombers galore
Nothing can stop the Army Air Corps
Brave soldiers never stopped until they “conquered” or were killed or at least wounded, though I really did not know what “conquered” meant.
Off we go into the wild sky yonder
Keep the wings level and true
If you’d live to be a gray haired wonder
Keep your nose out of the blue
Flying men guarding our nation’s borders
We’ll be there followed by more
In echelon we carry on
Nothing’ll stop the Army Air Corps
And then he sang in a different voice like he was singing through his nose…
Except the ack-ack
He laughed, looked down like he was remembering something, and shook his head. He looked at me.
“Ack-acks are anti-aircraft guns. They were big guns they used during the war to shoot down airplanes.”
I remembered the pictures in the big red war books of airplanes in the sky dropping bombs. I remembered him telling me that story about what he did in the war. Looking for German “eighty-eights” so his mortars could blow them up. The Germans used eighty-eights to blow up American tanks, but also to shoot down American airplanes. I wondered if the Soviet Unions had eighty-eights too, but I didn’t ask him.
When he finished the song, he wiggled my toe too. He said goodnight but instead of smiling he looked like he was thinking hard.
Now alone in my room, in my bed under the covers, I closed my eyes but I was thinking hard too. About Tom Swift the scientist with his laboratory where he built inventions no one had ever built before. About pretending I was Tom Swift with my space helmet. What I would tell Molly about Tom, and where she and I could pretend we had our own laboratory.