My introduction to John Steinbeck came in 1961 when I was 13 and my brother was doing a one-act play based on part of Of Mice and Men at the local community college. We sat on the bed reading roles. He was George. I was Lenny. Ours was a strict Southern Baptist home, and such words were never to be spoken in front of Mom, but Mom wasn’t there.
It was the thrill of my life to say those dirty words, one right after another, sentence after sentence of words that Mom would have whacked my bottom for saying. Before long we both were giggling and rolling over speaking words of literature from a Nobel laureate in literature. This was classy stuff. This was dirty, and we loved it.
Our older brother stood in the doorway, his arms crossed, and puffing on a cigarette with fire and brimstone in his eyes. We didn’t care. I was helping my other brother with his homework. What could be wrong with that? And, besides, it was so funny.
At least the words were funny. After we were finished and the play was done and my brother had taken his bows, the story stuck with me. It wasn’t so funny anymore. Our folks, of course, lived through the Great Depression but never talked about it much.
“How can you lose everything if you didn’t have anything to begin with?” Mom said, and that was that.
Of Mice and Men was not only my introduction to dirty words but also my introduction into that dirty, miserable and unfair world of the 1930s. There were the men who owned the farms and there were the men who worked the farms and therein lay a huge gap. No matter what Lenny and George’s dreams were, not matter how much they wanted them to come true, they never would.
All Lenny ever wanted was something soft to pet and take care of. But as Robert Burns said, such are the schemes of mice and men.
As I got older I wanted to read more of John Steinbeck. The local librarian asked my age and said I’d have to wait a while to read East of Eden. It was worth the wait. Then came Grapes of Wrath and all the others, except Travels With Charlie. I don’t know. His road trip with his dog didn’t interest me.
What started with adolescent humor built into a life-time of reading about what the world is really like and what we can do to change it. I know literature did this for more than me, not only novels and plays, but now movies and television programs that dare me to think. Luckily I married a woman who loved to read too. That way we learned twice as much. She told me about her books, and I told her about mine.
I am 70 years old and, yes, when I go to see an R-rated movie, I still giggle at the dirty words. And they still make me think.