Can you remember when you learned to read?

I don’t mean can you remember first grade or can you remember reading “Dick and Jane” with your mom. I mean can you recall the precise moment you read your first words?

I can. I was 5. We were living in Mesa, Ariz., my father a U.S. Air Force instructor pilot at Williams Air Force Base. I’d been read to since I was a baby — “A Child’s Garden of Verses” was a favorite of my mother’s — and I was no doubt learning my letters in kindergarten. But all that had been what you might call academic, mere preparatory drills on the sidelines before Coach sent me into the game.

And then one day we were driving in the car — a white Rambler station wagon — and as I looked out the window from the back seat, I suddenly could read some of the road signs:




I’m exaggerating only a little when I say there was a whooshing in my brain as millions of synapses fell into place. I understood that letters could be arranged to mean something. The sign that read GAS wasn’t itself GAS, but it meant that GAS was nearby.

Talk about a game-changer. The realization was thrilling, but also overwhelming. A few minutes after reading my first words, I noticed this new skill was not something I could turn off. I could just as easily turn off my sense of smell, by which I mean not at all.

I saw in that instant that I would have to read for the rest of my life. It was as if I had been deaf and could suddenly hear, but now risked madness by being buried in an avalanche of sound.

I didn’t know then that words would be my life. (Like every kid in 1967, I wanted to be an astronaut.) But I knew that my life had changed forever.

And so I read everywhere, and still do. If you want to torture me, don’t pull out my toenails (seriously, don’t). Just stick me in a room without something to read.

Thank you for reading.

Heat index

I was at Camp Moss Hollow last week. This year there are three young counselors from London and one from Birmingham, England. The Brummie is Nicole Bailey, 18, who is working as a Moss Hollow lifeguard.

The heat had been a surprise, Nicole told me. England occasionally gets warm and sunny, but it’s nothing compared to the relentless mercury-busting onslaught of a Mid-Atlantic summer in the age of global warming. When I met Nicole, she was reclining on a lounger by the pool, awaiting the next group of young swimmers. Head lifeguard Sam Foy had put on a hat and moved to the shade of an umbrella. Nicole had not. Mad dogs and Englishwomen seem eager to soak up the rays.

“You’re gonna bust out into flames over there,” Sam warned.

The pool is everyone’s favorite place to be at camp. And Camp Moss Hollow is a favorite place for at-risk kids from the Washington area. Will you help me support the camp? You can donate by visiting Or send a check, payable to “Send a Kid to Camp,” to Family Matters of Greater Washington, 1509 16th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036, Attention: Accounting Department.

Here’s a tasty incentive: If you donate $200 to $299, you’ll receive a $25 gift certificate to the Clyde’s family of restaurants. Give $300 or more, and you’ll get a $50 gift certificate. (Certificates will be mailed in August.)

Cry ‘Uncle’

Put down your pitchforks, good people of Troy, N.Y. Douse your torches. I apologize.

You see, in my column last week about Petworth Independence Day celebrations, I had the gall to say there was “no such thing” as a real Uncle Sam. Several Troy-born readers protested that the famed character is based on Troy’s Samuel Wilson, who supplied meat to U.S. soldiers during the War of 1812. Crates were stamped “U.S.” to denote “United States,” but soldiers came to associate the letters with “Uncle Sam” Wilson.

I’m not completely convinced you can draw a direct line from Sam Wilson to Uncle Sam. (Apparently an earlier figure known as “Brother Jonathan” bears many of Uncle Sam’s hallmarks.) The Library of Congress Web site says, “the term ‘Uncle Sam’ is of somewhat obscure derivation,” and the Encyclopedia Britannica describes the connection as “disputed.”

Still, in 1961, the U.S. Congress passed the following resolution: “Resolved by the Senate (the House of Representatives concurring) that the Congress salutes ‘Uncle Sam’ Wilson of Troy, New York, as the progenitor of America’s National symbol of ‘Uncle Sam.’ ”

And politicians would never make a mistake, right?

Twitter: @johnkelly

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