In the rabbit hole a monthly column by A.C.E. Bauer
When I was four or five, my grandmother announced that she was going on a trip and wanted to know if there was anything she could bring back for us. My older brother immediately piped up. “A new Dr. Seuss!” Not to be outdone, I said, “A new doctor Pedvis.” Doctor Pedvis was our pediatrician. When my grandmother returned from her trip, she handed each of us a box. I watched my older brother pull out Yertle the Turtle. I instantly recognized the fabulous cartoony images, though I had never seen the book before. I received a new pair of baby doll pajamas. “Is this a doctor Pedvis?” I asked. My disappointment must have been obvious. “Oh yes,” my grandmother said. My brother devoured the book on his own before allowing it to enter our communal library. This was no small gesture. The one-shelf library loomed large in our bedtime routine. Every night, after we had reluctantly put on our pajamas and gone through all the motions of brushing our teeth, my father sat on one of our beds, and we clambered up next to him. Then, with some debate, and occasional pouting, we chose a book. Yes, Yertle was chosen on occasion, as were Horton Hears a Who! and Green Eggs and Ham. But most often we returned to our two favorites: The Bike Lesson and A Fly Went By. The Bike Lesson, by Stan and Jan Berenstain, featured loosely drawn bears with large claws who rode bicycles — or rather father bear rode, making his son run after him, on the theory that he was teaching him the rules of the road. One uproarious disaster followed another. After fleeing bees, washing off mud, losing control on hills, crashing into haystacks, and encountering moving vehicles, father bear invariably intoned, “This is what you should not do. Now let this be a lesson to you.” The refrain became our family motto whenever anything went wrong, and is now parroted to our children who must wonder at its provenance. To my dismay over the years, these slightly wild and wild-eyed bears have been tamed, and didacticism has replaced their happy-go-lucky buffoonery. The Berenstain Bears now embody Lessons without the stick-it-in-your-ribs humor that I loved as a child. But The Bike Lesson still makes me laugh, even when more recent Berenstain creations don’t. The book that captured our greatest devotion, however, was A Fly Went By by Mike McClintock. It chronicles how a boy’s lazy afternoon is interrupted when a fly rushes by, chased by a frog, who is chased by a cat, a dog, a pig, a cow, a fox and a hunter. This last was frightened by a lamb who had caught its leg in an old tin can. The energy of the book comes from the unending chase rendered in bold strokes and simple watercolor washes by Fritz Siebel. What drew me in was the setting — it was familiar. I saw a late summer day, warm enough to go barefoot, but with enough chill to warrant long pants and a turtleneck when getting dressed. The cool air reddened the boy’s nose, ears and cheeks, just as it would have mine. And that fly looked exactly like the ones we had at our lake, up in the Laurentians. I scrutinized those pictures. Some weren’t quite right. The boat in which the boy sat was small and had no oar locks. From a distance, the lake’s bay looked more like a seaside village, with its sailboats. And where did the tall buildings come from in a town located in an obviously rural area? Still, the trees, the shore, the late summer flowers and weeds, the rolling hills and occasional stump reminded me enough of Labelle that I decided, this truly could happen to me. The orange striped tabby was our cat. The white, long-haired dog was every dog. I still remember the cow and her calf and their beautiful eyes, and the brave boy with a stick telling the fox to leave them alone. Each turn of the page brought vigor and surprise. And though the ending dragged with too much build-up repeated too often, the last page spread made up for that lapse. There was the boy again, alone in his boat, the sun setting, casting long shadows on a pink shore. An old tin can sat on the right hand corner of the right hand page. “I sat by the lake And looked at the sky.” Perfect. Years later, I found the tattered book amongst many others, up in Labelle. I called to my oldest daughter, then two years old. “Let’s read,” I said. As she settled in my lap, and I turned to the first page, my father recited from across the room. “I sat by the lake. I looked at the sky, And as I looked, A fly went by.” His eyes were half-closed. His lips stretched into a broad smile. My daughter snuggled deeper, in anticipation. A frog splashed across the page. The cat arched its back in surprise. The dog lolled its perfect pink tongue. I looked up at the sun-dappled lake, nestled between rolling hills, with late summer flowers and weeds at its shore. I bought my own copy of the book, the very next time we visited a bookstore.
Words quoted from A Fly Went By by Mike McClintock, copyright © 1958 by Mike McClintock. Copyright renewed 1986 by May McClintock.