HANNIBAL, MO. — “Tom! No answer. Tom! No answer. What’s gone with that boy, I wonder?” Is there a person in America who can’t place that partial exchange?
It comes from the opening lines of “Tom Sawyer,” a classic of American Literature, whose author everybody remembers as Mark Twain, The Mark Twain, the one-of-a-kind storyteller, humorist, observer of American life along the Mississippi.
Twain, who lived between 1835 and 1910, was prolific, having written, among other works, “Innocents Abroad,” “Roughing It,” “The Prince and the Pauper,” “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.”
Reading just a few chapters of his Mississippi-River-based novels creates nostalgia. I once even experienced with family what Tom and Huck Finn went through as they rode rafts down the mighty river.
Aunt Polly, Tom’s maid and cook, must’ve agonized as she tried to keep the youngster tick- and chigger-free. Ticks, those parasites that exist only to plant themselves on the skin of mammals and suck the blood until they’re gorged, are ubiquitous, especially in the tepid, humid climes of the Midwest.
Ever heard the term Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever? The implication clearly is that if you go deep into forests in the Rockies, you pick up ticks and develop a fever. What did this relatively dry section of God’s Country, the Rocky Mountains, do to deserve such a dubious distinction?
No, the ticks that cling are in Missouri, where I spent several summers and where my family returned earlier this month for a reunion. Play around in a pool and upon leaving, you’d better make sure a dozen ticks haven’t attached themselves, head first, into warm areas of your body.
Possibly even worse are the chiggers: the instant anyone enters Missouri, from any adjoining state, the chiggers appear. What makes them particularly noisome is that they’re virtually invisible. They hide between your skin and a tight belt, and when you discover you have an uncontrollable itch, and your waistline looks as if you’re wearing a red belt, the chiggers have won.
But I’ve digressed w-a-y too much. We now return to the author of novels in which Tom convinces his playmates that whitewashing a fence (a chore assigned as punishment) can be fun. Or the boy who is believed to have disappeared and then shows up for his own memorial service.
Much of the Twain canon centers on Hannibal, Mo., a town we’ve visited twice. The first time, around 1980, found us fighting crowds in summer heat that only the humid state of Missouri provides, struggling to buy tickets for a house tour and a steamboat ride down Old Man River.
The riverboat’s captain must have loved his job, as he narrated some of the hijinks Tom and Huck performed. Many thousands of Twain fans over the years have returned to Hannibal, making the otherwise sleepy town quite a tourist destination, in the St. Louis area, with a metropolitan area of millions.
My family wasn’t quite roughing it, Tom Sawyer style, as we rode high on a deck, four stories above the Mississippi. So, to make the experience more palpable, we joined a church-organized float trip, in which groups pile into a rubber raft and float several miles downstream.
Most surprising was that our group embarked on a float trip on what Missourians call a crick. But that crick could probably have dwarfed several Rios Grandes, even during monsoon season in New Mexico.
While on the raft, our only means of propelling it was the flow of the river. Several hours later, upon arriving at our destination, we hopped a weathered bus that took us back where we started.
Not exactly a “Deliverance”-type experience, but we did strum our air-banjoes.
Desirous of re-living Twain’s experiences, recollections and writings, we looked forward to visiting Hannibal, touring his childhood haunts, walking where Tom Sawyer had trod, and inhaling deeply on looking north and then south from the same pier Twain must have stood on.
Well, we did so last week, and it was a wee bit disappointing. It’s almost as if Mark Twain suddenly had fizzled from the canon of great American literature.
If all conditions indicate a big crowd of people like me, wishing to touch, feel, learn about Tom Sawyer’s day, where were they?
Whereas we expected the little town of Hannibal to pique literature lovers’ curiosity and interest — at least as much as people here want to know about “Catching the Kid” — where were they?
The day was great for exploring: the temperature was tepid; the time was a week or two before the start of school — perfect for using history as our own classroom.
But where were the crowds? Several businesses in this tourist town that cater to Twain aficionados seemed on the verge of closing, some permanently. The few patrons in a drugstore next door to the fence that Tom Sawyer had his friends whitewash, stood virtually empty, except for a handful of local folk.
Where were the people? The four-story riverboat we once clawed and scratched our way to board, was nowhere to be seen. When we visited the first time, we were unable even to book a motel room, crowds being so large.
This time, we felt confident, if we’d inquired about the times for showing theatrical re-enactments of, say, exchanges between Becky Thatcher and Tom Sawyer, they might have asked us, “What time can you make it?”
Where were the people? It frightens me to believe true American writers like Twain might have been relegated merely to “recommended reading” or even removed from the public school curriculum to make way for No Child Left Behind nonsense.
Or perhaps school administrators have succumbed to the notion that the leaky bag called “relevance” just doesn’t apply to school kids.
Art Trujillo is a copy editor at the Optic and a contributing member of the newspaper’s Editorial Board. He may be reached by calling 425-6796 or by e-mail to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.