Honoring the astonishing Mr. Gould

Legendary Monitor essayist John Gould had known not one, but two veterans of the Battle of Gettysburg, and taught Stephen King all about writing.

John Nordell/The Christian Science Monitor/File
For six decades, John Gould contributed personal essays to The Home Forum pages of The Christian Science Monitor. He wrote his first drafts on a typewriter.

It’s only fitting, in celebrating the 80th anniversary of a consummate storyteller’s first appearance in The Christian Science Monitor, that I begin with a story.

I’d been editor of The Home Forum for 18 months. John Gould was in the 56th year of what would be a 61-year run. “This can’t be right,” I said as I read Mr. Gould’s latest offering. It had arrived by mail, manually typed with a faded ribbon and double-spaced. The pages were dotted with proofreader’s marks, as befitted the former editor of a small-town newspaper. Deletions and insertions had been made in pen. It was ordinary, in other words, professional and clear. But the story it told was another matter.

You can read the essay for yourself, if you like, by visiting the our recently published “John Gould Sampler.” For those of you impatient to know, however, I will summarize (spoiler alert!): 

It’s the summer of 1918. Ten-year-old John Gould and his buddies are playing baseball on a field by the railroad tracks. Every day at 4:30, a slow work train passes, sometimes hauling a deadhead Pullman car from the Boston-to-Halifax train. A porter often stands on the stairs of the car’s open vestibule. On this particular day, the train’s passage coincides with a soft line drive that arcs toward the train. Incredibly – and here I start shaking my head – the porter catches it. He holds it up and waves to the boys as train, porter, and their only baseball recede.

But that’s not all. 

Two weeks pass. Same buddies playing ball, same 4:30 train, same porter standing on the stairs. This time he waves and tosses something toward the players as the train passes: It’s a baseball.  

In Mr. Gould’s words, “The baseball was unblemished, except it had the autographs of all the first-string players of the American League Boston Red Sox.” Including, yes, George Herman Ruth. 

Enough, I thought, and I called Mr. Gould. Surely this is a tad – embellished? I said. Mr. Gould was pleasant but insistent. That’s what happened, he said, offering to put me in touch with the lad, now advanced in years, who’d ended up with that autographed baseball. 

I worked with Mr. Gould for the rest of his life, and he continued to astonish me. It turned out Mr. Gould had known not one, but two veterans of the Battle of Gettysburg. He wrote speeches for Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, and the U.S. State Department sent him on a fact-finding tour of postwar Germany. He wrote bestsellers, appeared on a TV game show, and, oh yeah, taught Stephen King all about writing – according to Mr. King himself. And on and on. 

On top of all that, he welcomed, engaged, entertained, gently persuaded, and won the hearts of generations of Monitor readers, which is why we’re celebrating him now, 80 years after his first publication in the Monitor, in our weekly print issue’s special edition of The Home Forum and also online. 

And the baseball story? Given the rest of Mr. Gould’s eventful life, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched. More to the point, it’s a great story, it’s too late to fact-check, and if it isn’t true, it should be.

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