Read Old Man Scanlon

Random Vermont

03 November 2010

I've completed several pilgrimages to the spiritual center of yankeedom, Vermont, home of Frost, Solzhenitsyn, and THRUSH San Francisco satrap Ward Baldwin. Its culture fascinates: taciturn, rock-ribbed, self-reliant grit amalgamated with liberal shots of anarchy, bolshevism, and nanny-state political correctness. I'm not sure that's a felicitous combination, but it certainly is human. Maybe it's the influence of all the New Yorkers who go there to die, shunning the culture-free Florida option.

My flatlander family and I went to Vermont on vacations. Our destinations varied: the Steamtown railroad museum, the Rock of Ages Barre granite quarry, Lake Mansfield Trout Club in Stowe. Driving to Stowe, Dad would get off the interstate not long after we passed into Vermont. He'd been around long enough to know that the journey has its pleasures, that the destination isn't everything (it's possible that having hungry, insistent, ungracious teenagers in the car also influenced his decision). Even with this head start in the wisdom stakes, Dad, like Mark Twain's old man, made vast intellectual strides in the years to come.

On rural state highways I observed an architectural quirk I've seen nowhere else. Several old houses had a rectangular window in the gable, with its long dimension paralleling the roof line, striking and bizarre to an untutored eye. A local style? A local builder's idiosyncrasy? Without having a look at the house's internal structure, I just can't come up with a rational justification for the anomalous alignment. We passed through Moscow, an incongruous note in Cold War New England, clearly a harbinger, if not the actual birthplace, of Vermont's current Socialist senator. We stopped briefly so I could mail myself a letter having the Moscow postmark.

Later, after my surprise at surviving my teen years without dying of embarrassment had abated, my first wife and I visited old friends Cav and Deb in Brattleboro. Fortunately, our visits never coincided with Brattleboro's notorious epidemics of public nudity. Cav's dark hints tend to confirm my suspicions that Vermont has always been a place and time apart. I think he was in some peril of becoming a Vermonter. (By birth, his children actually are, though no real Vermonter would acquiesce.) He was so frugal in his winter oil consumption that his dealer tapped him for a supplementary energy sources survey. The dealer was incredulous when Cav told him that his only heat was from the few pints of oil he burned. Cav claims that his toilet iced over during the nights. Of course, his memory is so capacious and highly organized I believe he has the power to remember things no else does.

On a road trip She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named and I once stopped in downtown Barre to test the acoustics of Bozo Bill (aka Bozo Jim, aka Bozo Joe, aka Youth Triumphant). It's a statue commemorating local World War I dead, in the center of an approximately semicircular high-backed granite bench several tens of feet in diameter, which might suggest "whispering gallery" to you. I read about it in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. #17, The Hollow Crown Affair, and swore to visit it some day—my one-item bucket list. Sure enough, sitting on opposite ends of the bench each of us could hear the other speaking in a quiet voice yards away. Probably the last time we spoke to each other in quiet voices.

The U.N.C.L.E. television series and books were wildly popular with their teenage audience. Each week's TV episode was a major conversational topic at my school the next day, though now I can't remember a single story, not even the theme music. What I do remember is the non-digital, then-innovative spinning scene transitions, an ephemeral legacy at best. My U.N.C.L.E. books—new paperbacks, full of typos, fifty cents each—were more memorable, though not as durable as I'd wish, their glue and paper aging badly over the ensuing forty years. Unlike primitive television, you could read them more than once, at a time of your own choosing, an extra treat when a weekly dose of TV failed to satisfy the habit. A pair of heroes, masters of controlled violence, one suave and debonair, the other laconic and intellectual. Both impossibly cool—one could not even dream of aspiring to, let alone achieving, such consummate coolness—nevertheless serving as masculine role models (no doubt my female classmates had their own reasons for indulging). Mildly sophisticated, accessible humor. Worthy villains, THRUSH (the Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and Subjugation of Humanity), so evil that even the Commies are ill-disposed toward them. And the good guys always win.

Yes, The Man From U.N.C.L.E.—so liberating to reveal this guilty secret pleasure. It's perfectly serviceable escapist fiction, if not in the Patrick O'Brian league, and I'm not going to apologize for it. Even predictable, unsurprising plot and characterization, competently done, can bring gratification. Workmanlike escapism ("workmanlike" today seems to be used to damn with faint praise, which I emphatically do not intend) inherently satisfies. Sometimes it's just the thing to stay up until the wee hours with a couple of plastic glasses of cheap red wine and reread #13, The Rainbow Affair, from beginning to end.