My father grew up in a row house in West Philadelphia. The neighborhood was poor and “ethnic,” full of immigrant families where English was not spoken. My father’s parents came from the old country—from Russia or Poland, depending on whose raping and pillaging army was ascendant, and they knew little of the language. They conversed in Russian or Polish or Yiddish, or even some German they learned along the way. My father called grapefruits “oranges” his whole life. Something in some Chomskied corner of his brain prohibited him from seeing the two fruits as distinct.
Despite this my father seems to have read more than anyone I have ever known. I say seems because he knew a million facts, he knew history like a PhD., but I never actually saw him read a book. He just somehow absorbed information from the ether.
My brother and I shared a bedroom in our little-tilted house in Yonkers. Though I was the younger brother, I had the top bunk. Even as a little kid, I couldn’t sit upright because our ceilings weren’t but six and a half feet high.
When my father was around, which wasn’t all that often, he would come into our bedroom to read us a book before we went to sleep. He wasn’t one to read us kid’s books. He didn’t value them and didn’t find them interesting. Even when I was, say three and my brother was five, he would be reading us Plutarch’s “Lives,” Malory’s “Le Morte d'Arthur,” “Gilgamesh” or maybe something more contemporary, “Washington Square” by Henry James or “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Hemingway. There was no Dr. Seuss for us.
One night, my father came into our bedroom holding a greasy brown paper bag and two copies of Richard Lattimore’s just published translation of Homer’s “Iliad.” From the bag he pulled out two sheathed daggers of the cheap sort that in those days you could buy at a museum gift shop of the corner candy store. The daggers were about ten-inches long from stem to stern, with the hasp and the sheath bedecked with ersatz plastic gems. He handed my brother a dagger and a copy of Lattimore. And then he did the same with me.
“Philip of Macedon slept with a copy of Homer and a dagger under his pillow against assassins,” my father said. “His son, Alexander the Great, did the same. And a few centuries later, Mithradates emulated the Macedonians by sleeping with the Iliad and a dagger under his pillow.”
My father continued as if in a trance. “Philip, Alexander, Mithradates. Three of the greatest, most enlightened leaders the world has ever known. Conquerors of Attika, Xerexs, Cyrus and Darius. Conquerors of the riches of the East. Lovers of democracy, liberators of the enslaved.
“I ask you to consider that these men slept with a dagger under their pillows and a copy of the Iliad.”
With that, my father left our room.
Everything would have been ok if things ended right there but, of course, they didn’t, they never do. In school, we were given one of those banal assignments where we had to describe what our dog was like, or our house or our bedroom. I chose to describe my bedroom, which in the scheme of things probably wasn’t the wisest choice because I revealed to my teacher, who revealed to the principal, who revealed to the Yonkers School District that I slept with a dagger under my pillow.
I suppose this all caused quite a stink. But of course, they totally neglected to say Homer was under there too.