by Hugh Gilmore
When I was a boy, our next-door neighbor introduced me to outdoor life – hunting, fishing, adventure – mostly through the sporting magazines he subscribed to and occasionally through fishing trips. I became fascinated by wildlife. I was only nine when I received this kindness. It helped fill a hole in my life, which had begun deepening when my father started losing his battle with the bottle. It pained me to lose his companionship and guidance.
Our neighbor, however, a Fairmount Park Guard named Bill Pinkerton, allowed me to spend increasing amounts of time at his house, especially on the enclosed front porch where he kept his “Sports Afield” and “Argosy” magazines. I think back now and guess he sensed I needed a man’s attention and he offered it. Possibly his time spent with me filled a void in his own life (his own son wasn’t born yet).
Maybe he and I were reenacting a similar bond he’d had with his own father, a bond he missed. Maybe he was unable to enjoy fishing without having a buddy along – even such a city-kid novice as myself. Whatever the reason, I enjoyed feeling I was worth the interest of an adult man who liked spending time with me. But suddenly, after living there only 10 months, my parents moved us all far away.
We moved to a little countrified borough named Colwyn in Delaware County. The house was nice, but I felt sad, though I had no idea why. I walked the fields by myself. Walked the railroad tracks. Sat and watched the creek. Discovered the Philadelphia Free Library, obtained lending privileges and, after a while, developed the weekly routine of walking in the door of the Paschalville Branch and going directly to the science section.
My brain was looking for nature books. My heart was hunting for something – who knew what? – that would restore my lost happiness. I searched in books about snakes. About spiders. About the great hunters like Jim Corbett (tigers in India) or Frank “Bring ‘em Back Alive” Buck (lions in Africa). I borrowed books about mountain lions, grizzly bears, reptiles – any animal, trying to fill the empty hole in my heart. Mostly I remember the constant sadness and unexplained yearning.
Of course, now grownup, I realize the easy connection between my missing father-substitute and my lingering interest in the pursuits we’d shared. I now sense some love connection lies behind every person’s hobbies or collecting enthusiasms, even their vocations.
According to many of the magazines and books I’d read, nature was an enemy of man, a force one threw oneself against in order to be the victor in the struggle of fang and claw against the human will. Grizzlies stood tall to challenge you on the trail. Rattlers lay, jaws agape, waiting your approach as you climbed a rock pile. Trophy rooms, with their gleaming tusks and exposed fangs and grand horns or antlers, were proof of a man’s courage and determination.
At the ages of 10 to 12 in a Philadelphia suburb, even a semi-rural one such as Colwyn, few opportunities arose to defend one’s honor against roaring grizzlies or howling wolves or charging moose. But there were still plenty of snakes. Though the poisonous ones had been eradicated, snakes still frightened people. I knew them to be beautiful, useful and necessary in the chain of life. They were also misunderstood, so I identified with them.
I read about reptiles and amphibians (herpetology) constantly. Raymond L. Ditmars, chief herpetologist at the Bronx Zoo, became my hero and guide. His “Reptiles of the World,” “The Reptiles of North America” and “Thrills of a Naturalist’s Quest” were three of my cover-to-cover favorites.
From him I learned to capture snakes barehanded. At home, I removed the top from an old hard-walled suitcase, filled the bottom with dirt and a few pieces of curved bark (as hiding spaces) for the snake collection I kept under my bed. I also kept tortoises and turtles, toads and frogs and salamanders in or near various water-filled ponds I dug in the yard.
No one shared my interest. No one admired my riches. People thought me odd I suppose – and I guess they were right. That never bothered me. Their fear of these animals marked for me the boundary line between those who bother to learn and those who live by received folk wisdom. Also known too often as ignorance.
Fast forward: At West Philadelphia Catholic High School for Boys I’d been placed in accelerated classes and began for the first time in my life (age 14) to feel like a smart kid who acted dumb. I was in awe of the intelligence of some of the boys in the class, especially those who studied and worked hard.
That had not been my way. Good grades were desirable, but they’d only make me feel like more of an odd man out back in my working class neighborhood. And the constant disruptions and arbitrary rules of my home life led me to a life of good intentions never followed through.
I got the attention I wanted by being class clown. That was not the attention I needed, however, so every successful joke carried a taint of shame. I knew I should be studying and doing well. The smart boys just kept on getting smarter.
Another year: I am 15, still an amateur herpetologist and I encounter a lucky combination I shall never know the likes of again: I begin the formal study of biology and my teacher is Brother Damian Luke, a Christian Brother of the St. John Baptist de La Salle order.
Bless them both. I already knew half the curriculum. The rest I took to like a tadpole to pond water. Better yet, Brother Luke, every time I receive an A, which is every time, writes all over my paper, “A+++ Wonderful! Terrific Work! Attaboy! Keep it up!” and so on.
I’m hooked on this perfect world. I love biology to begin with, and I begin living for Brother’s compliments. They are the first I’ve ever had in this world. I am so happy. I am noticed. I am a dog that wants to run, a horse that wants to race. I want to know how fast I am, how strong I am, what my endurance is.
More, give me more. I dig in. I study. I write. I look through the microscope. Can you imagine the joy of actually looking through a microscope after reading about their powers for years? It is a thrill beyond compare. Backstage looks at the world’s smallest creatures. I’ll never forget it. And never forget Brother Luke.
In both January and June I am told I am the only boy in the city who had perfect scores in both of the citywide archdiocesan term exams. One day in May of my sophomore year, Brother Luke came to my worktable and gave me another lab paper grade. An A.
“Hugh,” he said, “Great job. Keep this up and you’re going to get a scholarship.”
“Thanks Brother,” I said, but as he walked away, I wanted to ask, but dared not, ”What’s a scholarship?”
In my culture one did not ask questions. They exposed your ignorance. You would be ridiculed.
Besides, if he was referring to college, he was wasting his breath. First, no Gilmore related to my family had ever been to college. We were real people. We worked with our hands. Second, even if I ever wanted to go, we couldn’t afford it. I had no idea how much it cost, but, whatever it was, we couldn’t afford it. My destiny was to go to work as an electrician and help support my mother and four sisters.
Or so I thought.
Hugh is the author of three Kindle-formatted books and two recent paperbacks, including “Malcolm’s Wine” and “Scenes from a Bookshop.” Both good summer reads. Available through Amazon.com and leading bookshops everywhere.