This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it.
How is such a thing possible? I'll do my best to explain. As a child, I had simply no interest in books. I hated reading, I was very bad at it, and besides, how could you take the time to read when there were games that shrieked for playing? Basketball, baseball, marbles-I could never get enough. I wasn't even good at them, but give me a football and an empty playground and I could invent last-second triumphs that would bring tears to your eyes. School was torture. Miss Roginski, who was my teacher for the third through fifth grades, would have meeting after meeting with my mother. "I don't feel Billy is perhaps extending himself quite as much as he might." Or, "When we test him, Billy does really exceptionally well, considering his class standing." Or, most often, "I don't know, Mrs. Goldman: what are we going to do about Billy?"
What are we going to do about Billy? That was the phrase that haunted me those first ten years. I pretended not to care, but secretly I was petrified. Everyone and everything was passing me by. I had no real friends, no single person who shared an equal interest in all games. I seemed busy, busy, busy, but I suppose, if pressed, I might have admitted that, for all my frenzy, I was very much alone.
"What are we going to do about you, Billy?"
"I don't know, Miss Roginski."
"How could you have failed this reading test? I've heard you use every word with my own ears."
"I'm sorry, Miss Roginski. I must not have been thinking."
"You're always thinking, Billy. You just weren't thinking about the reading test."
I could only nod.
"What was it this time?"
"I don't know. I can't remember."
"Was it Stanley Hack again?" (Stan Hack was the Cubs' third baseman for these and many other years. I saw him play once from a bleacher seat, and even at that distance he had the sweetest smile I had ever seen and to this day I swear he smiled at me several times. I just worshipped him. He could also hit a ton.)
"Bronko Nagurski. He's a football player. A great football player, and the paper last night said he might come back and play for the Bears again. He retired when I was little but if he came back and I could get someone to take me to a game, I could see him play and maybe if whoever took me also knew him, I could meet him after and maybe if he was hungry, I might let him have a sandwich I might have brought with me. I was trying to figure out what kind of sandwich Bronko Nagurski would like."
She just sagged at her desk. "You've got a wonderful imagination, Billy."
I don't know what I said. Probably "thank you" or something.
"I can't harness it, though," she went on. "Why is that?"
"I think it's that probably I need glasses and I don't read because the words are so fuzzy. That would explain why I'm all the time squinting. Maybe if I went to an eye doctor who could give me glasses I'd be the best reader in class and you wouldn't have to keep me after school so much."
She just pointed behind her. "Get to work cleaning the blackboards, Billy."
"Yes, ma'am." I was the best at cleaning blackboards.
"Do they look fuzzy?" Miss Roginski said after a while.
"Oh, no, I just made that up." I never squinted either. But she just seemed so whipped about it. She always did. This had been going on for three grades now.
"I'm just not getting through to you somehow."
"It's not your fault, Miss Roginski." (It wasn't. I just worshipped her too. She was all dumpy and fat but I used to wish she'd been my mother. I could never make that really come out right, unless she had been married to my father first, and then they'd gotten divorced and my father had married my mother, which was okay, because Miss Roginski had to work, so my father got custody of me-that all made sense. Only they never seemed to know each other, my dad and Miss Roginski. Whenever they'd meet, each year during the Christmas pageant when all the parents came, I'd watch the two of them like crazy, hoping for some kind of secret glimmer or look that could only mean, "Well, how are you, how's your life been going since our divorce?" but no soap. She wasn't my mother, she was just my teacher, and I was her own personal and growing disaster area.)
"You're going to be all right, Billy."
"I sure hope so, Miss Roginski."
"You're a late bloomer, that's all. Winston Churchill was a late bloomer and so are you."
I was about to ask her who he played for but there was something in her tone that made me know enough not to.
Him I also didn't know. Or what a late bloomer was either. But boy, did I ever want to be one.
When I was twenty-six, my first novel, The Temple of Gold, was published by Alfred A. Knopf. (Which is now part of Random House which is now part of R.C.A. which is just part of what's wrong with publishing in America today which is not part of this story.) Anyway, before publication, the publicity people at Knopf were talking to me, trying to figure what they could do to justify their salaries, and they asked who did I want to send advance copies to that might be an opinion maker, and I said I didn't know anybody like that and they said, "Think, everybody knows somebody," and so I got all excited because the idea just came to me and I said, "Okay, send a copy to Miss Roginski," which I figure was logical and terrific because if anybody made my opinions, she did. (She's all through The Temple of Gold, by the way, only I called her "Miss Patulski"-even then I was creative.)
"Who?" this publicity lady said.
"This old teacher of mine, you send her a copy and I'll sign it and maybe write a little-" I was really excited until this publicity guy interrupted with, "We were thinking of someone more on the national scene."
Very soft I said, "Miss Roginski, you just send her a copy, please, okay?"
"Yes," he said, "yes, by all means."
You remember how I didn't ask who Churchill played for because of her tone? I must have hit that same tone too just then. Anyway, something must have happened because he right away wrote her name down asking was it ski or sky.
"With the i," I told him, already hiking through the years, trying to get the inscription fantastic for her. You know, clever and modest and brilliant and perfect, like that.
That brought me back fast. I didn't know her first name. "Miss" was all I ever called her. I didn't know her address either. I didn't even know if she was alive or not. I hadn't been back to Chicago in ten years; I was an only child, both folks gone, who needed Chicago?
"Send it to Highland Park Grammar School," I said, and first what I thought I'd write was "For Miss Roginski, a rose from your late bloomer," but then I thought that was too conceited, so I decided "For Miss Roginski, a weed from your late bloomer," would be more humble. Too humble, I decided next, and that was it for bright ideas that day. I couldn't think of anything. Then I thought, What if she doesn't even remember me? Hundreds of students over the years, why should she? So finally in desperation I put, "For Miss Roginski from William Goldman-Billy you called me and you said I would be a late bloomer and this book is for you and I hope you like it. I was in your class for third, fourth and fifth grades, thank you very much. William Goldman."
The book came out and got bombed; I stayed in and did the same, adjusting. Not only did it not establish me as the freshest thing since Kit Marlowe, it also didn't get read by anybody. Not true. It got read by any number of people, all of whom I knew. I think it is safe to say, however, no strangers savored it. It was a grinding experience and I reacted as indicated above. So when Miss Roginski's note came-late-it got sent to Knopf and they took their time relaying it-I was really ready for a lift.
"Dear Mr. Goldman: Thank you for the book. I have not had time yet to read it, but I am sure it is a fine endeavor. I of course remember you. I remember all my students. Yours sincerely, Antonia Roginski."
What a crusher. She didn't remember me at all. I sat there holding the note, rocked. People don't remember me. Really. It's not any paranoid thing; I just have this habit of slipping through memories. It doesn't bother me all that much, except I guess that's a lie; it does. For some reason, I test very high on forgettability.
So when Miss Roginski sent me that note making her just like everyone else, I was glad she'd never gotten married, I'd never liked her anyway, she'd always been a rotten teacher, and it served her right her first name was Antonia.
"I didn't mean it," I said out loud right then. I was alone in my one-room job on Manhattan's glamorous West Side and talking to myself. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," I went on. "You got to believe that, Miss Roginski."
What had happened, of course, was that I'd finally seen the postscript. It was on the back of the thank-you note and what it said was, "Idiot. Not even the immortal S. Morgenstern could feel more parental than I."
S. Morgenstern! The Princess Bride. She remembered!
1941. Autumn. I'm a little cranky because my radio won't get the football games. Northwestern is playing Notre Dame, it starts at one, and by one-thirty I can't get the game. Music, news, soap operas, everything, but not the biggie. I call for my mother. She comes. I tell her my radio's busted, I can't find Northwestern-Notre Dame. She says, you mean the football? Yes yes yes, I say. It's Friday, she says; I thought they played on Saturday.
Am I an idiot!
I lie back, listening to the soaps, and after a little I try finding it again, and my stupid radio will pick up every Chicago station except the one carrying the football game. I really holler now, and again my mother tears in. I'm gonna heave this radio right out the window, I say; it won't get it, it won't get it, I cannot make it get it. Get what? she says. The football game, I say; how dumb are you, the gaaaaame. Saturday, and watch your tongue, young man, she says-I already told you, it's Friday. She goes again.
Was there ever so ample a dunce?
Humiliated, I flick around on my trusty Zenith, trying to find the football game. It was so frustrating I was lying there sweating and my stomach felt crazy and I was pounding the top of the radio to make it work right and that was how they discovered I was delirious with pneumonia.
Pneumonia today is not what it once was, especially when I had it. Ten days or so in the hospital and then home for the long recuperating period. I guess it was three more weeks in bed, a month maybe. No energy, no games even. I just was this lump going through a strength-gathering time, period.
Which is how you have to think of me when I came upon The Princess Bride.
It was my first night home. Drained; still one sick cookie. My father came in, I thought to say good night. He sat on the end of my bed. "Chapter One. The Bride," he said.
It was then only I kind of looked up and saw he was holding a book. That alone was surprising. My father was next to illiterate. In English. He came from Florin (the setting of The Princess Bride) and there he had been no fool. He said once he would have ended up a lawyer, and maybe so. The facts are when he was sixteen he got a shot at coming to America, gambled on the land of opportunity and lost. There was never much here for him. He was not attractive to look upon, very short and from an early age bald, and he was ponderous at learning. Once he got a fact, it stayed, but the hours it took to pass into his cranium were not to be believed. His English always stayed ridiculously immigranty, and that didn't help him either. He met my mother on the boat over, got married later and, when he thought they could afford it, had me. He worked forever as the number-two chair in the least successful barbershop in Highland Park, Illinois. Toward the end, he used to doze all day in his chair. He went that way. He
was gone an hour before the number-one guy realized it; until then he just thought my father was having a good doze. Maybe he was. Maybe that's all any of this is. When they told me I was terribly upset, but I thought at the same time it was an almost Existence-Proving way for him to go.
Anyway, I said, "Huh? What? I didn't hear." I was so weak, so terribly tired.
"Chapter One. The Bride." He held up the book then. "I'm reading it to you for relax." He practically shoved the book in my face. "By S. Morgenstern. Great Florinese writer. The Princess Bride. He too came to America. S. Morgenstern. Dead now in New York. The English is his own. He spoke eight tongues." Here my father put down the book and held up all his fingers. "Eight. Once, in Florin City, I was in his café." He shook his head now; he was always doing that, my father, shaking his head when he'd said it wrong. "Not his café. He was in it, me too, the same time. I saw him. S. Morgenstern. He had head like this, that big," and he shaped his hands like a big balloon. "Great man in Florin City. Not so much in America."
"Has it got any sports in it?"
"Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Poison. True love. Hate. Revenge. Giants. Hunters. Bad men. Good men. Beautifulest ladies. Snakes. Spiders. Beasts of all natures and descriptions. Pain. Death. Brave men. Coward men. Strongest men. Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Passion. Miracles."
"Sounds okay," I said, and I kind of closed my eyes. "I'll do my best to stay awake ... but I'm awful sleepy, Daddy...."
Who can know when his world is going to change? Who can tell before it happens, that every prior experience, all the years, were a preparation for ... nothing. Picture this now: an all-but-illiterate old man struggling with an enemy tongue, an all-but-exhausted young boy fighting against sleep. And nothing between them but the words of another alien, painfully translated from native sounds to foreign. Who could suspect that in the morning a different child would wake? I remember, for myself, only trying to beat back fatigue. Even a week later I was not aware of what had begun that night, the doors that were slamming shut while others slid into the clear. Perhaps I should have at least known something, but maybe not; who can sense revelation in the wind?
What happened was just this: I got hooked on the story.
For the first time in my life, I became actively interested in a book. Me the sports fanatic, me the game freak, me the only ten-year-old in Illinois with a hate on for the alphabet wanted to know what happened next.
What became of beautiful Buttercup and poor Westley and Inigo, the greatest swordsman in the history of the world? And how really strong was Fezzik and were there limits to the cruelty of Vizzini, the devil Sicilian?
Each night my father read to me, chapter by chapter, always fighting to sound the words properly, to nail down the sense. And I lay there, eyes kind of closed, my body slowly beginning the long flow back to strength. It took, as I said, probably a month, and in that time he read The Princess Bride twice to me. Even when I was able to read myself, this book remained his. I would never have dreamed of opening it. I wanted his voice, his sounds. Later, years later even, sometimes I might say, "How about the duel on the cliff with Inigo and the man in black?" and my father would gruff and grumble and get the book and lick his thumb, turning pages till the mighty battle began. I loved that. Even today, that's how I summon back my father when the need arises. Slumped and squinting and halting over words, giving me Morgenstern's masterpiece as best he could. The Princess Bride belonged to my father.
Everything else was mine.
There wasn't an adventure story anywhere that was safe from me. "Come on," I would say to Miss Roginski when I was well again. "Stevenson, you keep saying Stevenson, I've finished Stevenson, who now?" and she would say, "Well, try Scott, see how you like him," so I tried old Sir Walter and I liked him well enough to butt through a half-dozen books in December (a lot of that was Christmas vacation when I didn't have to interrupt my reading for anything but now and then a little food). "Who else, who else?" "Cooper maybe," she'd say, so off I went into The Deerslayer and all the Leatherstocking stuff, and then on my own one day I stumbled onto Dumas and D'Artagnan and that got me through most of February, those guys. "You have become, before my very eyes, a novel-holic," Miss Roginski said. "Do you realize you are spending more time now reading than you used to spend on games? Do you know that your arithmetic grades are actually getting worse?" I never minded when she knocked me. We were alone in the sch
oolroom, and I was after her for somebody good to devour. She shook her head. "You're certainly blooming, Billy. Before my very eyes. I just don't know into what."
I just stood there and waited for her to tell me to read somebody.
"You're impossible, standing there waiting." She thought a second. "All right. Try Hugo. The Hunchback of Notre Dame."
"Hugo," I said. "Hunchback. Thank you," and I turned, ready to begin my sprint to the library. I heard her words sighed behind me as I moved.
"This can't last. It just can't last."
But it did.
And it has. I am as devoted to adventure now as then, and that's never going to stop. That first book of mine I mentioned, The Temple of Gold-do you know where the title comes from? From the movie "Gunga Din," which I've seen sixteen times and I still think is the greatest adventure movie ever ever ever made. (True story about "Gunga Din": when I got discharged from the Army, I made a vow never to go back on an Army post. No big deal, just a simple lifelong vow. Okay, now I'm home the day after I get out and I've got a buddy at Fort Sheridan nearby and I call to check in and he says, "Hey, guess what's on post tonight? 'Gunga Din.'" "We'll go," I said. "It's tricky," he said; "you're a civilian." Upshot: I got back into uniform the first night I was out and snuck onto an Army post to see that movie. Snuck back. A thief in the night. Heart pounding, the sweats, everything.) I'm addicted to action/adventure/call-it-what-you-will, in any way, shape, etc. I never missed an Alan Ladd picture, an Errol Flyn
n picture. I still don't miss John Wayne pictures.
My whole life really began with my father reading me the Morgenstern when I was ten. Fact: "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" is, no question, the most popular thing I've ever been connected with. When I die, if the Times gives me an obit, it's going to be because of Butch. Okay, now what's the scene everybody talks about, the single moment that stays fresh for you and me and the masses? Answer: the jump off the cliff. Well, when I wrote that, I remember thinking that those cliffs they were jumping off, those were the Cliffs of Insanity that everybody tries to climb in The Princess Bride. In my mind, when I wrote Butch, I was thinking back further into my mind, remembering my father reading the rope climb up the Cliffs of Insanity and the death that was lurking right behind.
That book was the single best thing that happened to me (sorry about that, Helen; Helen is my wife, the hot-shot child psychiatrist), and long before I was even married, I knew I was going to share it with my son. I knew I was going to have a son too. So when Jason was born (if he'd been a girl, he would have been Pamby; can you believe that, a woman child psychiatrist who would give her kids such names?)-anyway, when Jason was born, I made a mental note to buy him a copy of The Princess Bride for his tenth birthday.
After which I promptly forgot all about it.