A guy you’ve never seen before walks in the front door of your home, behind an icy wind. You know three, maybe four, facts about him, but that’s all. Annapolis graduate, survived Pearl Harbor a decade or so earlier. At some point, he hands you a package, heavy as a brick, wrapped as a Christmas gift. You weren’t expecting anything from your dad’s distant uncle, but nobody tells a day-dreaming boy of nine or ten anything.
I realized when Uncle Don and his wife Peg gave me the present that it was a book. By that age I spent much of my free time reading, loved it. Golden Books lay behind me, and I’d graduated to more mature stuff—the Billy and Blaze stories about a kid with my name and his horse being my favorites. The new one from Uncle Don and Aunt Peg, Richard Halliburton’s Complete Book of Marvels, weighed in at a full pound and 315 pages, with innumerable photos and maps. For kids!
Nowadays, the writer, Richard Halliburton, is described as “an American travel writer,” but he called himself an adventurer and author. He crossed the Alps on an elephant, swam the Hellespont and the Panama Canal, flew and sailed everywhere. On one of his early flights around the world, he took the first aerial photo of Mount Everest, standing in the back seat of an open cockpit biplane. Halliburton disappeared into a typhoon at 39 in 1939 while trying to sail a Chinese junk from Hong Kong to San Francisco. But he left his mark on me
Richard Halliburton’s Complete Book of Marvels takes two imaginary kids of indeterminate ages on a globe-girding exploration of wonders made by humans or forged by nature, with Halliburton as your tour guide. You—because it’s always “you”—follow a series of maps so you know where each place fits into the planet. The key is the stories, everything in stories: how the Grand Canyon or the Empire State Building was formed, the reach of Rome shown in its structures and told in human stories of its thousand years of power. Or how a ruler built the moon-white Taj Mahal as a mausoleum for his beloved wife. Stories of dangerous adventure, like when Halliburton searched the lower levels of Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, an Islamic shrine where he hoped to find the Ark of the Covenant, and wound up fleeing.
The book is jammed with sharp black-and-white photos of all the places, the castle town Carcasonne in France and California’s breathtaking Yosemite among the most stirring. Photographs of ruins are generally augmented with early drawings. Your guide shows and tells you everything, with good humor, respect for differing backgrounds and a sense of place.
Richard Halliburton’s Complete Book of Marvels gave me a wide world, full of wonder, adventure and storytelling. I told tales as a kid, made things up, read heroic fiction, took up camping and canoeing. At 16, I was a foreign correspondent touring Europe. I marched in Washington and stood at the Lincoln Memorial for Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, I fought as a paratrooper in Vietnam and I faced the Ohio National Guard’s rifles in 1970. These campaigns gave me the courage to marry the woman of my dreams and adopt a baby girl in Russia.
And to write.
Let’s go adventuring!