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Over Easy: All-American heroism, found at the landfill

  • An image from "Frank Armstrong at College," a 1914 novel that Dan Mackie found in the book exchange at the Lebanon Landfill. (Dan Mackie photograph)



For the Valley News
Friday, February 22, 2019

The Valley News doesn’t have a “What They’re Reading Down at the Dump’’ column, but maybe it should. Whenever I go to the Lebanon Landfill and Literary Salon, I find the diversity remarkable.

On a gray metal bookcase in the recycling area, you might find fine fiction or philosophy tomes — why not take another shot at deciphering absurdist philosophers? Or is it enough that we are living out their bleakest thoughts even now?

I have seen out-of-date computer manuals, Christian books good for the soul, bodice rippers to incite the passions and self-improvement books like I’m OK, You’re OK, dating back to 1967. It was a massive best-seller. Why do we still wonder if we are OK?

On a recent trip, I came back with two older volumes that gave me more pleasure than an industrial fan I nabbed at the dump years ago. The fan burst into flames after a couple of hours. Incidents like that are why dump picking isn’t what it used to be.

One book is the Last Revised Edition of Noah Webster’s Elementary Spelling-Book, which appears to be from 1849 or thereabouts. In addition to spelling lists, It has practice sentences such as, “We burn fish oil in lamps.” No LED bulbs then. Or fishing quotas.

But the real prize was Frank Armstrong at College, copyright 1914, by one Matthew M. Colton. According to several minutes of internet research, that may have been a pen name of Walter Camp, the “father of American football,’’ used for books aimed at American youths.

I’m sure such volumes produced income, but they were also aimed at uplifting said youths. Frank Armstrong, as it happened, was a go-getter, someone who proved (as much as a fictional character could) that the sky was the limit for an American boy who lived right and persevered.

And persevere he did. Armstrong — you’d have to read the other books in the series to glean his backstory — managed to wind up at Yale, even though he did not matriculate at the right boarding schools.

Frank Armstrong at College drops the reader right into the thick of it. After arriving on the hallowed grounds of Yale, the freshmen join a torchlight parade through town. I leave it to psychologists and other professionals to discern the undertones (repressed, of course) suggested in this passage: “Dancing as merrily as their predecessors to the strains of the band, the Freshmen went swinging down the street imitating to the best of their ability the zigzag sweep of their elders. Hands of strangers touched for the first time and arms were thrown over strange shoulders and the feeling was good.”

Well, it leaves it at that; the rest of the book does not touch on the inner lives of Yalies nor make any mention of intimacies or, for that matter, girls. It was a simpler time.

Anyway, our Frank goes out for baseball and football, and, as time goes on, winds up on other squads as well because coaches cannot help but notice his glowing earnestness. He’s recruited for the swim team and after two weeks of training nearly beats an Olympic champion from Canada. This was when American lads had the right stuff!

The track coach sees him bounding for a line drive during baseball practice and covets Frank for the broad jump. With minimal training, he earns a place on a Yale-Harvard combined squad that sails across the Atlantic to compete with Oxford-Cambridge. And, guess what? Frank saves the day, defeating some leaping young aristocrat in the final event.

Pressed to give a speech at the team dinner that night, Frank keeps it short. “I did the best I could,’’ is all he says. What a guy! What an American!

In the course of time, Frank becomes a legend in both baseball and football, where he revolutionizes the game by catching a forward pass or two. Hitherto, the game had been played on the ground, with the two lines repeatedly smashing each other: three yards and a cloud of concussions.

At novel’s end, after graduation, Frank and his friends grasp hands at his suggestion. For the momentous occasion he says more words than usual: “We may never meet like this again, fellows, but let us not forget that wonderful old line — For God, for country and for Yale.”

Indeed.

I am a state college grad, but I was exposed to inspirational stuff like Frank Armstrong’s tale when I was a boy. Heroes on the pedestals before me were like near-silent Gary Cooper (in High Noon) or the many athletes who said after many a victory, “Gosh, I was just glad to be able help my team.”

There was something sincere and appealing about them: heroes who didn’t pound their chests or invent victory dances to celebrate themselves. (Thankfully that trend hasn’t spread into other fields, such as medicine.)

I began to wonder if hero-lit in the style of Frank Armstrong existed anymore, and if it was a bad thing if it didn’t.

A friend helped me think it through. She said that even if inspirational characters like Frank Armstrong are gone, acts of actual heroism go on. She mentioned Malala Yousafzai, the girl from Pakistan who put her life on the line in the cause of education for girls in her country. Then there are the Parkland, Fla., teens pushing for change. Maybe, she said, the time has come when the young must teach their elders about bravery and action.

I found that a comforting thought, because Frank Armstrong, for all his triumphs, had so little to say for himself that he was fairly dull. It’s hard to be interesting when, in the end, you’re not the least bit real.

Dan Mackie lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at dan.mackie@yahoo.com.