Column: Read Local by picking up these memoirs

By SCOTT SAALMAN

My favorite reading spot is within the shade of my backyard reading tree, where I mentally escape present day and place when so blessed, a 15-minute desperate bob for paragraphs here, a satisfying hour’s stint there — on a good day, you can read forever.  

It’s a tender, misshaped, softwood tree, its crown long robbed of seed-intended symmetry by past wild winds and lightning kiss, the crest whittled to three-fourths of former self, as if brunched upon by passing brontosaur.

It is here where literature lies snug in lap beneath the limbs and broad leaves as favorite authors from other lands steal me away, British writer Graham Greene, for instance, or Ireland’s Colum McCann and William Trevor, or Columbia’s Gabriel García Márquez, leaving me to laze in blissful state in a reclined lawn chair that must be painstakingly repositioned periodically to synchronize with the shade shift, the jaggy dark patch of grass my island of slow-motion magic and shadow, an ink-spill of wonder dropped courtesy of wanderlust sun.

Sometimes, though, beneath this tree there comes the joyful opportunity to mind drift in shade shift with the words of writers from not just my own country, but my own county, to read local.

Here is a trio of memoirs by local people with which to spend time beneath your own reading tree.

• “Matilda’s Triumph (A Memoir),” by Jasper doctor Richard Moss. Part detective story, Moss, an otolaryngologist, becomes enmeshed in a medical mystery that takes him beyond the realm of his own discipline of expertise after his mother, visiting his Jasper home, suffers a debilitating stroke. What follows is an honest, unflinching, personal account of the stroke’s aftermath, its physical effects on Moss’ mother, Matilda, and its mental effects on him. Moss becomes obsessed with finding all the information he can on strokes — its cause, its offal, its medicines. He is driven to restore his mother to a better quality of life — if she survives. When not tirelessly studying strokes, he prays — prayer and study, in essence, helps him escape the present. While his mother remains unaware and in deep sleep for several days, Moss revives her, rebuilds her, via memories of his Bronx childhood in the ’50s and ’60s. His childhood accounts range from hair-raising to humorous to heartbreaking (his father deserted his family, leaving Matilda to fend for her five sons alone). “Matilda’s Triumph” is a story of fathers, a story of sons, a story of mothers, a story of daughters, a story of brothers, a story of life, a story of death, a story of God, but ultimately, it is a love story — all neatly threaded into the fabric of a fantastic non-fiction read that left me at its end feeling exultant for having the good sense to read it. Buy it via Amazon or richardmoss.com.

• “Keepers of the Gifts (A Game Warden Legacy),” by Tom Jahn. As a conservation officer for more than three decades, Jahn, now retired, proudly served our community well. Lucky for us, he has amassed plenty of stories to tell from his career. Throughout, we join Jahn on grueling stakeouts that net the arrests of poachers and marijuana growers, and we are given first-hand accounts of water rescue attempts, some successful, some not so, the latter detailing in gut-wrenching, blow-by-blow fashion a river rescue training session gone awry, nearly costing Jahn his life but drowning a fellow conservation officer/friend who helped save Jahn. “For me, it wasn’t just a bad accident or losing a good friend. It was much more than seeing it happen or the helpless feelings of having Karl in my arms and not being able to bring him back. What made it so difficult was that Karl had died for me,” he writes. The book is worth its price just to read about Jahn’s selfless servitude as he immerses us in the wildfires he helped battle out West, where forests become seasonal furnaces. Buy it through Amazon, or locally at Great Outdoors or the Jasper City Mill, or via email: keepersofthegifts@gmail.com.

• “They Called Us Spooks,” by Ed Walston. Walston, a St. Anthony resident and retired Forest Park High School English teacher, served with the Army Security Agency in Vietnam in 1971-72. He recently compiled this collection of short stories and poems based on his time “in country.” From the humorous: “the two of us talked about music as we probed the grasses with our eyes. Suddenly, I sank waist deep in quicksand. ‘How’d you get so short?’ ‘Would you quit laughing and get me out of here,’ I said.” To the horrifying: “In the approximately one square kilometer that looked like a field that had been plowed with some kind of a giant piece of farm equipment, a helmet, parts of a scorched uniform, a radio, a broken AK-47 or RPG. We saw parts of bodies, a hand still clutching a pair of binoculars, an arm and a leg close together . . . a battered torso with the head partly severed, a puddle of entrails and red-brown mud . . . I never wanted to go along on another body counting mission, but I continued, like everyone else in our business, to measure my success in terms of numbers.” We owe it to Walston and our veterans to read and listen to their stories, lest we forget that, as Walston writes in his collection’s introduction, “this is the way it was.” Order by phone at 812-326-2260 or via Walston’s Facebook page.

You can download a copy of Scott Saalman’s collection of humor essays, Nose Hairs Gone Wild, from Amazon or B&N.




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