“We’re going through!” The Commander’s voice was like thin ice breaking. He wore his full-dress uniform, with the heavily braided white cap pulled down rakishly over one cold gray eye. “We can’t make it, sir. It’s spoiling for a hurricane, if you ask me.” “I’m not asking you, Lieutenant Berg,” said the Commander. “Throw on the power lights! Rev her up to 8,500! We’re going through!” The pounding of the cylinders increased: ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa. The Commander stared at the ice forming on the pilot window. He walked over and twisted a row of complicated dials. “Switch on No. 8 auxiliary!” he shouted. “Switch on No. 8 auxiliary!” repeated Lieutenant Berg. “Full strength in No. 3 turret!” shouted the Commander. “Full strength in No. 3 turret!” The crew, bending to their various tasks in the huge, hurtling eight-engined Navy hydroplane, looked at each other and grinned. “The old man will get us through” they said to one another. “The Old Man ain’t afraid of Hell!” . . .
“Not so fast! You’re driving too fast!” said Mrs. Mitty. “What are you driving so fast for?”
“Hmm?” said Walter Mitty. He looked at his wife, in the seat beside him, with shocked astonishment. She seemed grossly unfamiliar, like a strange woman who had yelled at him in a crowd. “You were up to fifty-five,” she said. “You know I don’t like to go more than forty. You were up to fifty-five.” Walter Mitty drove on toward Waterbury in silence, the roaring of the SN202 through the worst storm in twenty years of Navy flying fading in the remote, intimate airways of his mind.
— James Thurber in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”
I no longer remember when I first read James Thurber’s famous short story, but I appreciated Walter Mitty. While I had no intention of growing up to be a hen-pecked husband, I was addicted to the world of my imagination, and Mitty was the epitome of imaginators.
Even though my school teachers assigned the Walter Mitty story every few years, they did so for purposes of a tedious discussion and not so we would go and do likewise, imagination-wise.
While Mrs. Skretting was conjugating German verbs and Mrs. Johnson was talking about the symbolism in “The Grapes of Wrath, I was far away.
Early in life, I learned that my imagination was much more interesting–and often more sexy–than diagramming sentences, dissecting happless frogs, or computing the area of a triangle. When asked why I was a lousy student, I said, probably with a touch of youthful arrogance, that I wasn’t planning a career in diagramming, dissecting, or triangles.
“Well where have you been?” my teachers, pastors, parents and other mentor-type individuals asked with a touch of exasperating.
“Trying to save the Alamo,” I said.
“That’s just your imagination. It’ll never get you anywhere good.”
“Tell that to Hemingway, Faulkner and the people behind Mad Magazine.”
“The odds of you being any of those people are small,” they said. “Better to stick with the real world and be a tinker, tailor, soldier or a spy. Or, perhaps you could sell insurance.”
While I fondly remember kissing Holly Golightly in the rain, I’m past that now, for my imagination moves on. This morning I was imagining riding on a flying horse about an Illinois river and this afternoon I plan to imagine fighting a nasty flock of crows in the Mountains.
I’m an author and my imagination is my stock in trade even though I could probably earn more selling insurance or being a tinker or a tailor.
Today is the the 72nd anniverary of the original publication of Thurber’s story. It was, of course, just his imagination. After all these years, I’ve got to tell you that if you think I’m not listening while you tell me about Aunt Mable’s gall blatter surgery or the number of red lights between your house and your office, you’re right.
I’m far away listening to the pounding of the cylinders increase, ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa, as my star cruiser flies in low over the trackless wastes of Mercury where a Klingon War Bird is about to decloak and fire a barrage of photon torpedos.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire,” an imaginary story about a reporter trying to find a missing race horse in a town that doesn’t exist in real life.