Monday, July 24, 2017


Richard Halliburton and friend

In what I could pretentiously call my birth family’s Heritage LIbrary, which was really a strange assortment of happenstance and middle class pretentiousness, the books that came from my father’s side included a lot of 19th century romantic adventurers that still offer a template for boys who want to be extraordinary and define that as travel in strange and dangerous places where they might be eaten, literally.  The exemplar here is Richard Halliburton.  

Adventure well-described is the idea behind “Outside” magazine and part of what has always made me say that inside this near-80 old woman there has always been a teenaged boy trying to escape.  (But, alas, instead I’ve become a seven-year-old again.)  There was a surge in these books between the World Wars, maybe because there was money and adrenaline and there's another surge now, maybe for the same reasons.  I still have the family copy of “The Royal Road to Romance,” just as I have an arms’-length of Gene Stratton-Porter and Harold Bell Wright, who were more conventional. 

When advised to have an even-tenored life, Richard said “as far as I am able I intend to avoid that condition. When impulse and spontaneity fail to make my way uneven then I shall sit up nights inventing means of making my life as conglomerate and vivid as possible.... And when my time comes to die, I’ll be able to die happy, for I will have done and seen and heard and experienced all the joy, pain and thrills—any emotion that any human ever had—and I’ll be especially happy if I am spared a stupid, common death in bed.” 

Halliburton finally died trying to sail a Chinese junk from Hong Kong to the Golden Gate Bridge.  A typhoon took him down.  He was very athletic after a childhood bout with heart trouble was finally cured by four months in bed, or possibly by the regime of Kellogg at Battle Creek, or possibly simply by growing out of the affliction.  He was not big (5’7”, 140 pounds) but he was handsome and very athletic, mostly in terms of swimming.  He swam the length of the Panama Canal and was charged toll of 36 cents.

He was quite "modern" in his sexuality, which could be described as bisexual.  Quoting Wikipedia (whoever wrote it):  “French police reports, dated 1935, noted the famed traveler's homosexual activity when in Paris at about the time of his planned crossing by elephant over the Alps: ‘Mr Halliburton is a homosexual well known in some specialized establishments. He is in the habit of soliciting on Saint-Lazare Street.’”

I have no idea what my father would have thought of this aspect of his hero — probably he never had the information.  Like many people of his class and time, he thought the facts were apparent and conventional, and tried to remain blind to extremes.  Life was a matter of written history, carefully published, avoiding censorship, thus selling well but also raising puzzles for some reflective people by mixing the ordinary and captured with implied wicked transgressions.  Crossing the alps (like Hannibal) on an elephant, echoing history, was an adventure that recruited a zoo elephant named “Miss Elyzabethe Dalyrymple.”  The story is in “Seven League Boots,” a book I have not read.

Though Halliburton himself was no homebody, in the Gay way, the community around him provided a home when he needed one, this time an architect’s climax construction of “Hangover House” which did indeed hang over a cliff.  Possibly it was also a pun.  Anyway, Ayn Rand was impressed and put the house in “The Fountainhead” as “Heller House”.  Novelists weave in and out of adventurer’s lives.

The means for adventure and the true use of the tales became clear in the Thirties when the Great Depression stunted so many lives.  The tales gave them access to soaring ideas, literally when Halliburton commissioned an excellent pilot to fly him around the world in a biplane.  (They crossed the oceans on ships.)  Along the way they interacted with intrepid females doing something like the same thing with less success.  On this trip Halliburton made his famous moonlight swim in the Taj Mahal reflection pond.  More modern similar adventures might be Peter Matthiesen and George Schaller looking for The Snow Leopard. or David Quammen exploring Africa’s virome.  More recent explorers tend to be based on biology rather than geology.  

By this time writing has been augmented by film and sometimes skips the books to go straight to vision via electronic screens.  Writing, however, has a little more elbow room which writers have used to explore the forbidden, ransacking shocking human behavior even under our noses.  The current Teen Vogue is in the midst of a furor over an article advising how and whether to have anal sex safely.  (Note that this was not in “Boys’ Life.”)  Such anthropology used to be about people in the South Sea Islands.

The strange mix of conventional with defiant extends to Halliburton’s family.  He wrote over a thousand letters home.  “Nearly a quarter century after Halliburton's disappearance, his father donated $400,000 to build an imposing bell tower. It was dedicated in 1962 as the Richard Halliburton Memorial Tower, and the elder man died the following year at age 95.”  It’s at Rhodes College in Memphis rather than Princeton where Halliburton attended and his papers are divided between the two institutions.

I don’t know whether my two brothers read the books in our home.  Certainly they didn’t ransack the shelves the way I did and they attended a tech high school rather than my more humanities-focused school.  My mother said she had no time to read the newspaper, much less books, and I never talked to my father about his books, though for a while he paid me a penny a card for creating a library-style inventory of them.  I never got very far with it.  I haven’t done the same for my own books, though I compose bibliographies now and then, mostly for Blackfeet subjects.  A rather hip practice is simply taking a photo of the spines of the books on the shelves, which I try to keep organized by subject.

The major adventure of each of my brothers was the Marines, though neither saw combat since they were just barely young enough to avoid Vietnam, though not the draft.  One brother, the dead one, relished adventure and went out of his way to look for it.  The other one has been very careful with his life, never taking chances and working in a library for years.  He is a reader, but I don’t know what he reads.  We are estranged.  I've had far more adventures than my brothers, who do not write.  This vid is eloquent and conventional.  Maybe it’s old-fashioned.   This vid shows how rich and beautiful women follow adventure by re-tracing male daring-do.

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