Dazed and confused? Not me. I’m just Lost in the Cheese Aisle.

Friday, November 8, 2013


This morning I listened to the Bob Edwards show on the radio on the way home from the Local Bagel and Smoked Fish Emporium. His guest, one Paul Schneider, was talking about the Mississippi River - he had recently written a book, Old Man River, on the subject -  and at one point he compared the flow of a river to the flow of time. The ocean, by contrast, is timeless... unchanging... immense.

As I continued to listen, an old memory came floating to the surface of my mind, something drawn from the earliest depths of my childhood. And, in its own way, it had to do with rivers... and the sea.

I remembered Scuffy the Tugboat.

Scuffy! What child has not read of his adventures, adventures chronicled in a single slim volume, a Little Golden Book, one among many such books that filled the dusty libraries of almost all baby-boom generation tykes? The title Scuffy the Tugboat is the eighth best-selling children’s book of all time: It is hard to imagine anyone reaching adulthood without having read it.

Scuffy! His story is the perfect metaphor for the baby-boom generation itself, especially fitting for a book that appeared in 1946, the same year the very first baby boomers were beginning to appear on our planet. It is the story of a little toy tugboat who feels, deep in the core of his being, that he was created to act on a far bigger stage than the one on which he first finds himself, a mere toy on a shelf in a toy shop. Pfaugh! He was made for bigger things!

(Which might explain his vaguely pissed-off expression on the book cover.) 

Scuffy is taken home by the mustachioed Man with the Polka Dot Tie. (The book’s illustrator, one Tibor Gergely, was Hungarian, possibly accounting for the Man’s vaguely European looks.) But being used as a Bathtub Plaything by the Man’s young son is not on the Scuffster’s personal agenda. He is frustrated and irate, or as Gertrude Crampton, the book’s author, puts it, he is cross.

His real adventures begin when he is removed from the small, safe confines of the bathroom and set loose to float in a brook by the Man and his son. “Sail, little tugboat,” says the Man, and sail he does. The rapidly moving waters of the brook carry him away, and as the little boy cries out, “Come back, little tugboat, come back,” Scuffy issues what we can only presume to be a sneering, cocky riposte: “Not I. Not I. This is the life for me.”

The little brook soon becomes a stream, which soon becomes a river. Scuffy sails on, taking in the sights as the river grows ever wider, taking him away from bucolic scenes of milkmaids and cows and past larger and larger human habitations. Villages give way to towns, towns give way to cities, and the river just keeps on flowing.

Finally Scuffy has had enough, his mind stretched to the breaking point by the sheer magnitude of the world around him. No longer the proverbial big tugboat in a little pond, he is now a microscopic piece of flotsam in a huge harbor. He has seen floods, destruction, death. He has seen vast ocean liners compared to which he is not even a boil on a barnacle’s ass. And now, as he sees nought ahead of him but the immensity of the endless ocean, he realizes that he is well and truly fucked. “This is no place for me,” he ruefully admits...

...just as the Man with the Polka Dot Tie reaches down from the farthest end of the pier and rescues Scuffy. The little tugboat, having now been taught the quintessential lesson of post-World War II America - a place for everyone and everyone in his place - is now happy to live a greatly diminished existence: to be a Bathtub Plaything.

Moral lessons aside (“Dream Big” is not one of ’em, by the way), Scuffy’s story resonates, I am sure, with many of us whose ambitions may, at times, exceed our abilities. Reach exceeding grasp, that sort of thing. At one time or another, I suspect that is most of us... and yet I also suspect that Scuffy the Tugboat would have trouble finding a publisher today in these touchy-feely self-esteemy days.

I learned to read at an exceptionally early age, and so the first books I read packed a greater emotional wallop than they normally would have. What always made Scuffy’s story stick with me was that image of the little toy tugboat, who, having seen his riparian horizons become ever huger and who is now faced with the emptiness of the unknowable, immeasurable sea looming before him, is saved by what can only be described as a deus ex machina homo ex naualibus. I tell you, that image scared the shit out of me when I first read the book as a three-year-old... and I can still feel a little shiver in the back of my mind fifty-eight years later. And it is the same shiver I feel when I stare out at the immense, timeless sea.

1 comment:

Rahel Jaskow said...

Things were already different by the time I was in elementary school. We saw "Paddle to the Sea."

Sometimes I go to Google Maps and follow the course of rivers to the open sea -- and that gives me the chills.