On hearing the news of J. D. Salinger’s death, the memory of where and when I first read The Catcher in the Rye resurfaced with uncanny clarity—especially the circumstances that led up to that seminal read. It began with a haircut thirty-seven years ago.
As regards the length of hair, Damelin College was more tolerant than Bryanston High School, or all the public schools in South Africa, for that matter. The hair could cover the ears and the collar, but no longer. Of course, in emulation of the rock stars, I wanted it longer—much longer. There weren’t many hair inspections, but when a teacher did walk round I stretched my neck as long as a giraffe’s. When that didn’t work anymore I curled my growing mane with my mother’s curlers. That did the trick for a while. But I couldn’t fool wily Mr. Le Roux, our hawk-eyed English teacher, for long. On one of his random checks he put his finger under a tight coil and slowly unfurled it until the naked, dark frond extended a full two inches beyond my white collar. As if he’d accidentally stumbled upon an exotic plant, he pulled out the rest of my carefully coiffed strands—one by one—and let them rest like hapless, succulent petals on my white collared shirt. “Now look’ee here,” he said in a soft, sarcastic sing-song manner, “what an impressive display.” Some students around me snickered. After a noxious silence he added, more severely, “See me in my office immediately after class.”
I’d come to Damelin College to get away from exactly this kind of chicanery. I’d been ‘caned’ umpteen times at the other schools for having hair longer than the stipulated ‘short back and sides’ (and the breaking of other inane rules). As I reluctantly walked toward his office after class I was firmly resolved that if he caned me I would walk out of the school right there and then, no matter what the consequences. But what I got was even worse than a flogging. When I entered his office he already had a pair of scissors in his hand. Without a word he clutched a chunk of hair at the back of my head in his large fist and proceeded to cut it off straight above the collar, cursing when he realized how difficult it was—“Bloody thick hair!” Lock for licorice lock he threw my hair into the wastepaper basket. Once my hairdressing appointment was over, he said, “Don’t you ever play that trick on me again, despicable youth!”
“And don’t you ever touch my head or hair again—sir!” I yelled back, surprised at the vehemence of my impulsive retort. I rushed from his office, ran down the stairs and out into the busy city street. I took the first bus home, threw some food and a cooker into my backpack, and, fired along by the unabated momentum of my ire, hitchhiked out to the Magaliesburg Mountains, my place of primal refuge.
About five rides and three hours later, I was walking up the game trail to my favorite gorge when I was stopped by a baboon blocking my way. “Ah, Mr. Le Roux, here you are again,” I thought, and eyed him out, unflinchingly. After a tense pause, the baboon turned and retreated back up the path. Relieved, I waited a few minutes before continuing. As I reached the top of the hill, I scanned the valley below and saw hundreds of baboons passing by, some with their young riding on their backs or hanging from below. He’s multiplied, I thought, watching them in wonder. Once they’d dispersed, I hiked down to my favorite spot at Tonquani Gorge, where I rolled out my sleeping bag, made a fire, and began reading The Catcher in the Rye.
Though Holden’s world was so foreign to mine, I couldn’t help but note the similarities. His Pencey Prep school was my Damelin College, his Pennsylvania my Transvaal, his New York my Johannesburg, and his fourth school was my eighth. Like Holden, I had many grievances against the education system, and I was just as enmeshed in troubled relationships with girls as him. His sanatorium was my wilderness—my Tonquani Gorge. Instead of ducks, I had baboons. I read till it was dark, then made a fire, ate some sandwiches, brewed some Rooibos tea on my Cadac cooker, gazed at the stars and went to sleep.
Next morning I packed up and strolled back, reading all the while. Coming off the trail I stood beside the dirt road, waiting for a car. None came. I started to walk and read. I walked in the middle of the dusty road, with corn fields to my right—Holden’s rye fields. Still no cars came and I continued walking and reading. An hour passed and a tractor that didn’t stop. Mile after mile, page after page, on and on, alone on that windless road I walked. In between I broke off a mielie and tried to eat it, but the dried out corn was as hard as stone—cattle fodder. I continued my march and read, my steps falling into rhythm. It seemed odd to be reading about Manhattan, Central Park, taxi cabs and prostitutes, while I was trudging along this empty, red-earth road, corrugated by the cradled back and forth of rains and drought. I took off my white collared shirt and tied it around my head as a shield against the blazing sun, but tanning my torso. I walked and read to the sound of crickets and cicadas, the sonic equivalent of Holden’s city drone. The two worlds of Manhattan and the Magaliesburg merged steadily into one.
I was surprised when I saw the familiar bend in the road designating the end of the dirt road—I’d walked the twenty miles in a dream. And in a choreographed moment of uncanny coincidence I reached the Indian trading store just as I finished reading the last page of the book. I bought a pint of cold milk and a loaf of white bread and sat down in the shade of a dilapidated billboard (Three Trees Tea). Ten minutes later, still chewing and sipping my milk, I stepped up to the main road and within minutes hitched a ride back to Johannesburg, strangely pleased with myself.
And now, having remembered, I want to reread The Catcher in the Rye for a second time—to see how far I’ve come.