“No More Monkeyshines”

~ Herbert Knapp (1931-2021) ~

Last November I received a small package from Herbert Knapp of Mount Vernon, New York. It contained a friendly letter and a book of poems he had written. Mr. Knapp had come across my blog by way of Patrick Kurp’s Anecdotal Evidence. “A gift book is almost always a presumption,” wrote Mr. Knapp, “but where would we be without presumption?”

I did not consider it a presumption at all. I was delighted. As I read through Mr. Knapp’s slim volume I felt a kinship with him. We had read and loved so many of the same books. The authors and works he referenced might have come from my own library: Chaucer and Melville and Dickens and Hopkins and Dickinson, Thomas Traherne and the King James Bible, Gargantua and Pantagruel, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Prescott’s Conquest of Mexico.

I found Mr. Knapp’s blog online. I learned he was an octogenarian who had worked alongside his wife Mary as an English teacher for the Panama Canal Company. Together they had written and published One Potato, Two Potato: The Folklore of American Children and later Red, White and Blue Paradise: The American Canal Zone in Panama. Back in the United States they had settled in Massachusetts and then in New York. In retirement Mr. Knapp devoted himself to writing poems (read this one) and painting.

In the introduction to Reading and Rhyming, the book he sent me, Mr. Knapp described how he came to love books:

“Some drink. Some take drugs. I read. It’s my mother’s fault. Not that she taught me. Oh, no. That was my teacher’s job. She got paid for it. But when Miss Morgan failed to do her job and passed me on to second grade ‘with reservations,’ Mother took charge, and the first glorious day of summer vacation, just as I was on my way outside after breakfast, she grabbed me, marched me out to the squeaky glider on our screened-in front porch, plunked a stack of library books down beside me, and said, ‘Now read! No more monkeyshines!’ I was to stay there ‘til noon every day, except to go to the bathroom.”

Young Herbert whined and complained at first, but then he began to read, and read, and read. He never entirely left that front porch, it seems.

I wrote back to Mr. Knapp to thank him for his letter and the book he had sent me. Three months passed.

This past Friday, just as the snow began to fall at my house, the postman delivered me another letter from Mount Vernon, New York. Hand-written on simple stationery, this one was from Mary Knapp. In it she told me that Herbert, her husband of 66 years, had died on the 13th of January after contracting the COVID-19 virus. He read my letter, she said, from his hospital bed.

In the epilogue to Reading and Rhyming is a short poem Mr. Knapp wrote titled “A Reader’s Prayer.” He begins by remembering how, when younger, he planned to “resurrect” – by reading – “every character who’d ever been / buried by an author in a book,” but of course there is no end of books, and so he had come to accept (as every reader must) the countless numbers of them that he would finally leave unopened. He concludes:

So now I pray that when I die,
that God, who has more time than I,
will read my life as if it were a book,
and I, enlivened by His look,
will read again inside His head
as if I were at home in my own bed.

I had hoped to exchange more letters with Mr. Knapp, but it wasn’t to be. There’s more I would like to have said, and to have asked. But I’m grateful for this little chapter in which our stories briefly overlapped. It’s easy for me to forget sometimes – as an introvert and a man so perfectly content in his family life – that we are mysteriously sustained by bonds with others unknown to us. But I believe art and literature, at their best, speak to that secret fraternity of souls.

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