Maggie and I spent a morning last week in a place we go about twice a year — the darkest corner of our basement. It’s not entirely dark — darkish is more accurate because we haven’t updated the lighting. In fact we go there only to haul out all the boxes of Christmas stuff and later to put them back.
But there’s more down there than ornaments and decorations, and it was the rest of the stuff we were after. We were on another downsizing mission in our own little box canyon. In the 20 or so boxes we emptied, about half of them made us wonder what we were thinking when we saved their contents. A couple of boxes of checks from 2001 and 2002, several boxes of old sheets that were used as drop-cloths when we painted as well as old paint-scarred T-shirts that don’t even fit anymore. It can be fun to throw things out.
Other boxes contained obsolete computer parts, miscellaneous wiring, hand-me-down records — they’re called vinyl these days — from my parents of various symphony orchestras and other music, including a record of the West Point Marching Band. Maggie’s and my old records – mono and stereo — were also down there. Unfortunately, many are probably too scratchy to enjoy. Still, coming upon the Iron Butterfly album with the corner chewed off by our first St. Bernard was a bittersweet reminder that dogs need exercise.
Then we came to the book boxes, mostly packed with paperbacks, obsolete textbooks and some children’s books. Most interesting was a book Maggie and I acquired in 1987 or ’88 when we lived in Kingsport, Tennessee, either shortly before or shortly after we adopted Connor, our older son.
It’s “Babar Comes to America,” published in 1965. A hardback, its cover image — Babar sitting contentedly in the raised arm of the Statue of Liberty while holding an American flag in his trunk — has faded with the years. Wear and tear were manifest in the numerous doggy-eared and even torn corners of the book’s pages. The book had aged enough that the Kingsport Public Library had stamped “Discard” on the book.
Written by Laurent de Brunhoff, son of the creators of Babar stories, and translated from the French by M. Jean Craig, the story recounts Babar’s trip to the United States at the invitation of the U.S president. Lyndon Johnson, president during Babar’s visit, is not mentioned, perhaps because he was preoccupied with Medicare or civil rights legislation or the war in Vietnam.
Babar arrives at Dulles International Airport in a Pan Am jet; Queen Celeste and the children later join him in California. Upon arriving, he announces, “I am very happy to come to your great country, the country of Washington, of Mark Twain, of Danny Kaye…”
Later in New York, he gets scolded by a bus driver for putting a quarter in the fare box instead of the required 15 cents, observes that everyone is in a hurry and that no one looks at anyone else, and pronounces the city’s traffic “a racket!”
As his journey continues, Babar learns to play baseball, knocks over a gallon of cider on his first trip to a genuine American supermarket, is awarded a doctorate of letters at Harvard and loses his hat at an auto assembly line in Detroit.
Farther west, his children roller skate down San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill and into the arms of a police officer. Later, the family drives and drives through a sequoia, spends a day at Disneyland and enjoys a night at a drive-in theater, where the children enjoy their “picnic supper in the car.”
A day or two and direction change later, Babar and his herd visit the Grand Canyon. Other stops along the way include Dallas and New Orleans before Babar and company head to New York to return by ocean liner to the country of the elephants.
As for celebrities, Babar enjoyed an evening of jazz music offered by “Theodorus Priest” and his quartet and toured Hollywood, where he visited the set of the famous movie director, “Urchin Walls.” The author tells us so.
“Babar Comes to America,” like most in the series, is a wonderful story. It’s also an enjoyable trip into the past. Pan Am, 15-cent bus fares and drive-in movies are now part of Americana.
Ironically, neither Maggie or I remember reading this book to our boys, though both are well acquainted with Babar. It was out of sight in the basement and out of mind. We’re glad we’ve dug it out in time to read to the grandchildren.
Braun retired in 2017 as the Mercury’s editorial page editor.