Reading Retirement

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Years ago my graduate school mentor, G. Melvin Herndon, announced that he was retiring.
At first, the news was a little hard for me to accept.  He  had spent a lifetime teaching, directing graduate student research, and studying the significance of tobacco in the history of colonial Virginia.  I could not see him walking away from all that.
So I asked him, “what now?” expecting a reply that he would spend more time actually farming his farm outside of Athens,  GA, and maybe travel a bit, which is what most retired folks do.  I also expected him to tell me about a new book that he would write at his leisure and leave as a lasting contribution to his profession.
Wrong on all counts.
“I am going to read every one of Zane Grey’s novels,” was his reply.
Coming from someone who had never shown any interest in the Old West that Grey wrote about, it was a shocker.
Then I thought that maybe, just maybe, this was his way of saying that whatever he did in retirement, it was going to be about as far away from what he did when he was working as he could get.
Now retired myself, I can appreciate that.
In my former profession, I read a lot, but the books I read were usually selected
because they related directly to what I was teaching or writing, and that was always history.
Seldom did I choose a book into which I could escape from academia.
Now I can.
Or can I?
Since retiring I have read all Tim Dorsey’s novels. They relate the often hilarious adventures of Serge A. Storms and his drug addled companions, serial killers who kill people who need killing — environmental rapists, abusers of the vulnerable, exploiters of the innocent, litterbugs.
However, Storms is also a Florida history fanatic whose cross state wanderings include visits to historical sites along the way.
When I finished Dorsey’s books, I set to reading John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels, works I knew of from a line in a Jimmy Buffett song:  “Travis McGee’s down in Cedar Key, that’s what John MacDonald says.”
McGee is a modern knight-errant who lives on a houseboat in Fort Lauderdale, loves the ladies, drinks Plymouth Gin, and makes a living righting wrongs and getting back stuff that was stolen, all for a cut of whatever he recovers.
He is brave, honest, ethical, and sensitive.  The only thing he has in common with Serge A. Storms is his occasional perchance for violence.
But as I sank into MacDonald’s (and McGee’s) world of mystery, intrigue, and surprise endings, something was missing.
History.
Of all McGee’s interests, history ain’t one.
Happily, I was rescued from my history-less dilemma, by my buddy Philip, who handed me a copy of George MacDonald Fraser’s, Flashman and the Great Game.
It is one of a series of books that recount the fictional reminiscences of Harry Flashman, a Victorian gentleman, soldier of the Queen, and one of the most lovingly despicable characters I have ever come across.
A bully expelled from Rugby School for drunkenness, Flashman candidly admits that he is “a scoundrel, a liar, a cheat, a thief and a coward,” who only wants to be comfortable, stay safe, eat and drink well, and enjoy the company of attractive women. Of those goals, he accomplishes only the latter, and even that puts him in mortal danger more often than not.
It also puts him in the middle of historical events that he would rather avoid but can’t.
In the years that followed his expulsion, Flashman uses family connections to get a commission in the British army, and though he would rather stay home, off he goes to defend the Empire. In the course of his career he chickens out during the First Afghan War, turns tail at the Charge of the Light Brigade, yet emerges a hero from both, and receives the Victoria Cross for valor and is awarded a knighthood.
In another adventure he journeys to America, where he meets Abraham Lincoln before he was Abraham Lincoln and may have fed him the famous “can’t fool all of the people all of the time” line, while he was doing just that.
He also survives Custer’s Last Stand, and through no fault of his own, saves India for the Empire.
He is a cad, a rounder, and a thoroughly charming degenerate.
That one of the Flashman books was serialized in Playboy back in 1973, tells you the sorta guy our hero is.
But one day all the Flashman books will be read.
What will I do then?
Tim Dorsey to the rescue.
A new novel is out, and in it Serge is heading across the Florida Panhandle, getting rid of villains in all sorts of nasty ways while visiting historical sites on the Redneck Riviera.
Oh the joys of retirement.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at hjackson@cableone.net.

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