Sunday, August 12, 2007

Toad of Toad Hall crosses the Rubicon

I imagine that at about ten of nine, Tuesday morning, Uncle Merlin was standing outside the door of his local video store, rapping on the glass, and calling to the sleepy-eyed clerks inside getting ready to open up, "Let me in! Let me in now! I have to rent it and watch it immediately."

"It" being the second season of Rome which came out on DVD this week. Uncle Merlin watched season one with all the ferver and exegetical attention of a recent religious convert. He is not just a fan of the show, he has become a virtual citizen of Rome, the ancient city, the vanished Empire, the decaying Republic.

Rome may not have been built in a day, but his obsession was established after a single episode, and since that first, revelatory viewing Uncle Merlin has been deep into researching the glory that was Rome and hardly a day goes by when I don't receive an email with a link to something he's turned up in his obsessive googlings of all things Roman. When we were down on vacation he was so absorbed in Anthony Everitt's biography of Cicero that one night he had to be dragged bodily off the front porch and thrown into the back of the car to get him to his favorite seafood restaurant. I was glad that his now two-years old, Brokedown Mountain-inspired enthusiasm for Country Western music still has him wearing his cowboy hat and pearl-buttoned shirts everywhere otherwise we might have had to face the sight of the six feet six of him appearing at the breakfast table some morning in a toga and a plumed helmet.

This has always been the way with him. Uncle Merlin has never had interests or hobbies. He has enthusiams. Manias! Restoring old automobiles, repairing and selling vintage appliances, refitting his house with steam heat; Country Western music, Marantz receivers, smoothies, English bull terriers, Rome---when something comes along that grabs his interest, it grabs his heart, mind, body, and soul along with it.

The joke around the Mannion house is that Uncle Merlin is really Mr Toad from The Wind in the Willows. Toad, you probably remember, was regularly carried away by his manias, his enthusiasm for automobiles being the catalyst for Toad's main misadventure and the cause of his temporarily losing Toad Hall to the weasels and stoats.

So far, fortunately, none of Uncle Merlin's manias has resulted in his having to disguise himself as an old washer woman to escape from prison.

Me, I'm nothing like Toad. I don't get carried away by anything. In fact, I resist enthusiasm. If I'm like any of the characters in Wind in the Willows, I'm like Badger, grumpy, withdrawn, inclined to be solitary, and that's on my good days.

Thinking about this the other day, when I was imagining Toad outside the video store...I mean Uncle Merlin...I wondered if I was like any character from children's literature.

I kid the blonde that she's the Little Red Hen, but really she's Harriet the Spy.

But who am I?

Robin Hood?

Long John Silver?

In my dreams.

I know who I am. I've known it since I was a little kid. I recognized myself the first time I heard the story on Captain Kangaroo.

I'm Mike Mulligan.

You remember how it goes, Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel?

How Mike always said his steam shovel Mary Ann could dig as much in a day as a hundred men could dig in a week, although he was never quite sure that was true? How Mike took such good care of her that she never grew old? How...

It was Mike Mulligan and Mary Ann and some others who cut through the high mountains so the trains could go through...

It was Mike Mulligan and Mary Ann and some others who lowered the hills and straightened the curves to make the long highways for the automobiles...

It was Mike Mulligan and Mary Ann and some others who smoothed out the ground and filled in the holes to make the landing fields for the airplanes...

And it was Mike Mulligan and Mary Ann and some others who dug the deep holes for the cellars of the tall skyscrapers in the big cities...

I always liked that apparent throw-away phrase "and some others." It captures Mike's pride in Mary Ann and the reality that of course they didn't do any of this alone without taking readers' attention off the most significant fact in each sentence. Mike and Mary Ann had done important work and done it well.

I identified with Mike from the first and I even felt that like Mike and Mary Ann I always worked a little better and little faster when people were watching.

I'm not sure what work I thought I was doing when I was seven years old.

But then:

...along came the new gasoline shovels and the new electric motor shovels and the new diesel motor shovels and no one wanted Mike Mulligan and Mary Ann any more.

It was that feeling of being unwanted that grabbed me and stuck with me.

How a little kid wound up feeling that the world and time had passed him by is beyond me. There's a simple explanation, but I don't like it. By the time I was in first grade I had four little brothers and sisters, a very young age to become your parents' lowest parenting priority. Mom and Pop Mannion didn't neglect me, not by any measure, but I'm sure I must have often felt like they didn't have time for me any more. That's too pat, though, and I prefer to think that my identification with Mike has a quirkier, more psychologically colorful explanation.

Come to think of it, Captain Kangaroo read a bunch of stories that had a similar theme. Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel, The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge, Hercules: The Story of an Old-Fashioned Fire Engine, Virginia Lee Burton's other great children's book The Little House---makes me wonder if that feeling of having been left-behind is universal among children of a certain age.

Whatever the explanation, in my head I am Mike Mulligan---what or who's my Mary Ann is another mystery---and I'm looking to find my way to Popperville to dig the cellar of the new town hall to show that Mary Ann and I can still dig as much in a day as a hundred men can dig in a week, although I'm still not sure this is true.

I would, though, make all the corners neat and square.

But there are days when I'm not Mike Mulligan, days when I'm Pooh and other days when I'm Eeyore. I've been Aladdin and Natty Bumpo and the boy who cried wolf. I was Frank but never Joe Hardy.

Joe is the athletic, impetuous one. Frank is the more thoughtful older brother.

And I've known some other characters. I've known Peter Rabbits who can't resist going where they've been told they should never go. I've known Cats in the Hat, cheerful troublemakers who think that the rest of us should accept and forgive the mayhem they cause because it was so much fun. (The character of Andy on Weeds is a Cat in the Hat, come to think of it. His ex-girlfriend, played by Zooey Deschanel, is even more so, and is significantly named Kat.) I've known all three of the little pigs.

I've known Cowardly Lions, Tin Woodsmen, Scarecrows, and humbugs hiding behind curtains, pretending to be great and all-powerful wizards. I've known Dorothy.

I've known Tom Swifts, Tom Sawyers, and Tom Tom the Piper's Sons. I've known Pollyanas and Peter Pans of both sexes.

I've known Ramonas who were pests and Ramonas who weren't.

And, of course, I am friends with Toad of Toad Hall.

Your turn.

I like putting it this way.

Who are you?

Who do you know?

But I guess the better way to put it is probably "What work of children's literature meant or still means the most to you?"

Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel and other favorites of the Mannion boys when they were small are available through my aStore.

So is Rome.

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