2017-02-01 / Up Close

Story of His Life

One Man’s Journey Retelling Life’s Lessons
Laura Coyne Steel | Photos by Matt Fern

Jim Garthe is known for his sense of humor, environmental activism and frugal ways. He prides himself on reusing a paper towel four times. He likes to create outrageous fill-in-the-blank form letters for people when they retire. The former Penn State extension engineer, now retired himself, is kind of a character — in fact, he’s the main character.

For the past eight years, Garthe has been crafting various short stories detailing his youth. All Boy, Here Comes Jimmy! is a 341-page book that features “life lessons” that chronicle Garthe’s adventures and misdeeds from the age of 2 — yes, he remembers burning his hand on a muffler at that age — to about age 17 when he was in high school in Denville, New Jersey, and just starting to ask girls out.

His goal was to share the freedom kids enjoyed in the 1950s and ’60s while giving his family — and generations to come — a glimpse into his life at a younger age. He self-published his book and presented one copy to each of his three children — Greg, Kyle and Tracy — and a copy to each of their two cousins whose dad (Garthe’s brother) is featured in about one-third of the essays. He keeps a sixth copy safeguarded for himself — but is willing to loan the book to family and friends for a two-week period.

Garthe started out with about 200 topics and then whittled that list down to 100 short stories. He spent 3 to 8 hours on each essay, writing during the winter months by a cozy wood stove in his basement at his home in Petersburg. He then asked his wife, Patricia, to lend a hand in the review process. Once the stories were completed, he hired an editor to polish his prose. His keepsake book was meant to chronicle the days when America was his “playground.” As an added touch, Garthe constructed a wormy American chestnut box, which features an inlaid sand-cast aluminum bas-relief of a young Jimmy, to hold each book.

Most of Garthe’s essays are playful while a few take a serious tone. “I had a wonderful childhood,” he says. Each story details hobbies, interests and the general pursuits of neighborhood kids growing up in post-World War II rural America. Garthe felt that these were the best of times — when kids could run wild and free, within reason. His outdoor fun included building the highest tree hut in New Jersey, ice skating, hiking, biking, go-karting, canoeing, playing hockey, sledding, fishing and swimming.

Garthe wanted to document his “antics of all sorts” for historic reasons. “I would have loved to have read about my forbearers,” he says, “including learning about their likes, dislikes, customs and expressions.” When did he decide to tackle this all-consuming project? When he was about to turn 50. It was then that he embarked on a 1,200-mile bike tour to Newfoundland, Canada — by himself. One rainy day, as he was pedaling along looking for a dry place to pitch his tent, he became homesick and longed for his family. As he laid in his wet sleeping bag, he quickly realized he had to change his attitude to get himself out of his funk. Soon the spirit of that adventurous little boy reemerged. “I started to think back to the carefree days of my childhood,” he says. Once home, Garthe started jotting down three- or four-word phrases that referenced specific times in his younger years.

One of those phrases was “City Slicker Sledding,” which became the title of one of the stories. Garthe humorously writes about how he and his buddies groomed a sledding hill and built a jump with logs that they wanted to play on the entire next day. However, on day two, a group of New York “city slickers” moving into a nearby housing development encroached upon their sledding territory. These interlopers with their flimsy sleds were ill-prepared for the icy hill and its torturous jump. “Pretty soon the slickers became airborne, and we laughed in glee as they wiped out below,” Garthe says. “They trudged home and never came back.”

Growing up as the middle of three boys, he draws upon and credits his hard-working and loving parents for his joyful upbringing. His mother, who was the “cement that held everyone together,” was a stay-at-home mom until Garthe reached the age of 8. She then worked outside the home while his grandmother moved in with the family. His dad was employed at Eastern Air Lines and was so handy that he never had to call a repair person to the house. “He was a perfectionist but playful too,” he recalls.

During his younger school days, Garthe says he was very distracted and hyper. “I would daydream a lot. I’m embarrassed to publish details of my past behavior, but I can’t change what happened,” he says. He remembers having to write ‘I will not throw rocks on the playground’ 1,000 times.

While each story features good old-fashioned advice, there’s a lot of wit and humor built into each theme. “Humor and misery can be so close,” Garthe says, who enjoys poking fun at himself. “It’s zany, serious and pathetic all at the same time.” Garthe’s humor extends to the back of the book where there are several mock reviews — for instance, “Highly refined B.S.” says the Los Angeles ‘Tines.’

“My enthusiasm as a kid still lingers today,” says Garthe, who feels the book represents a culmination of what he was and what he is today. And that includes feelings of purpose, optimism and cheer.

This book isn’t for public consumption, though Garthe has done a few story readings. And what do his kids think of their gift from Dad? That’s to be determined. “I don’t think they have fully read the book yet,” he says. He gave each of them their signed copies last summer and included a personal inscription. “They’ll probably end up reading it posthumously,” he laughs.

Garthe also hopes to inspire his grandchildren and would love for them to accompany him during future pursuits so that they can learn the practical skills he honed as a kid. “I long to instill in them my overarching principles of self-reliance and self-sufficiency,” he says. And the younger set may need to sometimes give up their electronic wizardry, which Garthe feels can often “whisk kids’ minds away.

Their imaginations seem only as deep as what they see on a screen,” he says. “They may see more, but my generation experienced more. And that’s an important distinction.” •SCM

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