The Magazine

Boys Will Be...

...pleased by this garden of earthly delights.

Jun 25, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 39 • By ROGER KIMBALL
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The Igguldens also include the story of Douglas Bader, an RAF pilot who crashed in 1931 when showing off doing rolls too close to the ground. He lost his right leg above the knee, his left below the knee. His flying log for the day reads: "X-country Reading. Crashed slow rolling near ground. Bad show." Fitted with metal legs, Bader was told he would never walk without sticks. "On the contrary," he replied, "I will never bloody walk with them." When World War II broke out, Bader was allowed to reenlist and even to fly, metal legs and all. He had 22-and-a-half air-to-air victories (he and a fellow RAF pilot both shot up one German plane, so they agreed to split the victory). In 1941, Bader collided with a German Me 109 over France.

The tail of Bader's plane was torn off and he began plummeting towards the ground. He got the canopy off and climbed out into the wind to parachute clear. His right leg caught and he found himself nailed to the fuselage by the slipstream. . . . At last, the belt holding the leg to him snapped and the leg went off through his trousers, allowing him to break free of the plane and parachute to safety.

Well, relative safety. He was scooped up by the Germans and put in prison. He asked his captors if a message might be sent to England to retrieve his spare right leg. Mirabile dictu, the Germans agreed. The British dropped it off during a normal bombing run. Bader put on the leg and casually walked out of the hospital in an effort to escape. He was promptly rounded up again, but tried to escape early and often. Exasperated, the Germans took away his metal legs, but the outcry from other prisoners was so great they shamefacedly returned them.

These are stories, the Igguldens note, "that must be told and retold, or the memories slowly die." The fact that The Dangerous Book for Boys was a runaway bestseller in England gives one hope. And speaking of England, my chief recommendation is not just that you buy the book, but that you buy it twice. Connoisseurs will want the English as well as the American edition. There are numerous differences. There are little things like prices being expressed in dollars, not pounds, and a chapter on baseball instead of one on cricket. American history has been substituted for the story of the British Empire. I note that instead of a chapter called "Astronomy," the American edition offers us "Astronomy--the Study of the Heavens," which I suppose tells us something about how the publisher views its American readership.

All of that is minor--though I miss the list of kings and queens of England, especially the mnemonic to keep the fate of Henry VIII's wives straight: "Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived." But having mentioned Admiral Nelson already, I have to say I was sorry to see that the Wright brothers appear in his place in the American edition. I hasten to add that there are no flies on Wilbur and Orville--theirs is an exhilarating tale, eminently worthy of inclusion in this book--but the story of Horatio Nelson is essential, Master James Kimball requires me to state, absolutely essential.

I was also sorry to see that the chapter on catapults was dropped from the American edition. Ditto the chapter on conkers. Not that American boys play much with horse chestnuts attached to a bit of string, but the book's advice about how to make the hole in the chestnut is worth savoring. You can use a nail or spike, but "better to get your dad to use a drill on them." Don't try it yourself, by the way, because "the conkers spin round at high speed or crack when you put them in a vise. Much better to ask an adult to do it, but give them your worst conkers to start with until they have learned the knack."

Why not make do with the English edition, then? Well, for one thing, the American edition includes the Navajo Code Talkers' Dictionary. The U.S. Marines would have been lost without it in World War II. 'Nuff said.

Roger Kimball, editor of the New Criterion, is most recently the coeditor of Counterpoints: 25 Years of The New Criterion on Culture and the Arts.