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The Truth, Mainly - 07/23/2001

Telephone conversation with Holden Caulfield, 67

As George Will told us earlier this month, July marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye."

I first read the book 49 years ago when I was an 18-year-old college freshman. I bought it because I guessed it was a baseball book, maybe about Yogi Berra or Roy Campanella.

Instead, it was about Holden Caulfield, and I later learned in one of Prof. Green D. Wyrick's English classes that it was Real Literature.

So I changed my major from pre-ag to English.

Unlike George Will, I have a strong affinity for Holden. For one thing, we're the same age, both born in 1934, both 17 in 1951, and both 67 now.

I call old Holden on the phone every so often and we talk about how crazy we used to be. You know, geezer talk.

I call him this time to see if he's read Will's column about him.

"Yeah," Holden says. "Very big deal."

"Wuddaya think?" I say. "Hey?"

When I talk to old Holden on the phone, sometimes I talk the way he talks. I'm not kidding.

"Listen," Holden says, "I know old George has about 14 Pulitzer Prizes and I know he went to Princeton and it's a very hot-shot school and all. George writes very good baseball stuff, but he got me all wrong."

"Yeah?" I say.

"Yeah," he says. "In the first place he thinks old J.D. was trying to make me a role model. But the truth is he made me all screwed up. I narrated the book from a sanitarium in California where psychiatrist guys were always asking goofy questions. Talk about an unreliable narrator. I wasn't a role model. I was crazy."

"Because of Allie's dying and all?" I say.

"Old Allie," he says. "Old Allie with that damn baseball mitt with poetry written all over it. He was the smartest, kindest little brother anyone ever had and then he was in the cemetery with his lousy tombstone getting rained on. It drove me nuts."

"And that's why ," I say, sounding like one of those phony TV interviewers, "you wanted to be a catcher in the rye?"

"Yeah," he says. "I wanted to catch all the little kids when they got to the edge of this crazy cliff in the rye field. Especially old Phoebe, my little sister. She killed me with her red hair and pretty ears, and she was smart and nice and funny. Then I saw that perverty stuff written on the wall at her school and I tried to rub it out but you can't rub it all out because these perverty bums are coming in the windows and they write more of it. That made me crazy too."

"So being a catcher in the rye would mean you'd be protecting little kids from growing up into corrupt adulthood?" I say.

"It was nuts, I admit it," he says. "But that must have been what I thought. Remember, I was headed for the funny farm."

The Truth, Mainly


"So what's happening in that next-to-last chapter?" I say. "You're standing in the rain watching old Phoebe riding on the carrousel and trying to grab the gold ring. You say you're afraid she'd fall off the horse, but you didn't do anything. That doesn't sound very protective."

"Keep reading," he says. "Right after that I say 'The thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall off, they fall off, but it's bad if you say anything to them.' I think I was starting to figure it out by then."

"So why," I say, "do you think old George Will says you're what's wrong with this country today?"

"If you really want to know, I'm flattered," he says. "He's a traditionalist and he probably sees me as a dirty rotten secular humanist with a naive faith in human goodness. And I admit it. That's what I am."

"So that's why," I say, "you end the book by saying you miss all those people you can't stand—like Stradlater and Ackley and Maurice, the pimp who punched you in stomach? I suppose you even miss old Ernest Morrow who you said was about as sensitive as a toilet seat. Sounds like a Whitmanesque embracing of the whole of humankind."

"Whatever you say," he says. "You're the English teacher. But you know what really cracks me up about old George Will's piece?"

"No," I say. "What really cracks you up about it?"

"He says that I wore a baseball cap backwards. Then he says 'In case you were wondering about the pedigree of that bit of contemporary infantilism.' The 'pedigree of that bit of contemporary infantilism.' Boy, that kills me. But he got that wrong too. It wasn't a baseball cap. It was a red hunting cap with earflaps. I wouldn't be caught dead wearing a baseball cap backwards. But a red hunting cap with earflaps, that's different."

Old Holden. He still knocks me out. I'm not kidding.


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is: leonsatterfield@earthlink.net.


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