Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Fightin' Texas Rifles

Drove out to my Pennsylvanian used book store (one of my two regular haunts in the area) during a melancholy drizzly post-Thanksgiving Friday afternoon solo jaunt. Not sure what I’d pick up; it was one of those “something’ll jump off the book shelf into my arms” excursions. And two somethings did.

This book store in particular has a Janus-like personality. One side houses a thousand books spanning in age from a few years to a few decades. Dark, musty, and incredibly overpriced. Over in an adjoining room are the paperbacks: something like five hundred science fiction novels, half that amount in Westerns, and quadruple that figure in action thrillers. This is the room I spend most of my time. I don’t find much of what I long-range target (out of print niche classics by the masters) as the books here are mostly throwaway dimestore reads. At least the science fiction ones. But the Westerns are a different story – gnarled yellow things men old enough to be my father read as boys.

I’m not sure what attracts me to Westerns. It’s not really my personality. I enjoy a good cowboy flick on TCM every now and then, but I don’t watch more than a dozen a year. Something in them appeals to me, though, and I think it has something to do with mid-life thoughts on my life, what I’ve accomplished, what I’ve failed to accomplish, what I’ve done and what I think I ought to have done, how I live it, how it should be lived, how it could be lived.

Same goes for all the war stuff I’ve read over the past five or six years. Fifteen or twenty books on the Civil War, ten or a dozen on WWII, two or three on the Great War to End All Wars a century ago. Why do I read them?

With the Westerns, I think it’s an escapist combination of vicariously experiencing a simpler yet paradoxically tougher life. Yeah, if you didn’t work, or hunt, or kill, you didn’t eat. But you knew where a man stood. A man was a man, not one of fifty genders he/ze/it decided he/ze/it was that day. A man’s word was gold, and a handshake was an unbreakable oath. It was a polite society, because, as it’s frequently noted, it was an armed society.

War is similar, though it’s more on point to my interior musings: could I have handled it? How would I have acted on the beaches of Anzio in the thick of invasion, or flying a Hurricane over the English Channel to engage some German aircraft, or loading shells into the massive guns pounding away on the cliffs of Saipan – let alone spilling into the oily, shark-infested waters should the ship go down. What if I was in a row on Cemetery Ridge, shoulder-to-shoulder with other citizen-soldiers, awaiting the rebel charge, a few crooked, narrow trees my only real protection, as rifled MiniĆ© balls whizzed past my head, inches or less from my ear? Could I stand the heat?

Anyway, two books did leap off the shelves at me: Texas Rifles by Elmer Kelton and The Fighting Texan by Paul Evan Lehman. Never read either author, though I understand Kelton has a decent reputation in genre circles. Both should be quick reads, and I’ll probably put them away before year’s end. In fact, I’m thinking about starting The Fighting Texan tonight, after the house quiets down and the ladies are all asleep.

Happy reading, and don’t flinch when that lead bullet drills a path through the air at you!

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