John Finn’s favorite writer’s Halloween story

(A version of this review appears on the Navy Reads blog, dedicated to reading, books and critical thinking:

World War II’s first Medal of Honor recipient (former Navy chief and lieutenant) John Finn came to Pearl Harbor Dec. 6, 2009 to ride in a whiteboat named for him. He was 100.

I had the privilege of interviewing John Finn during that boat ride. He told me his favorite author, beginning early in his life, was Ernest Thompson Seton, the naturalist, artist, writer, adventurer and Native American Indian advocate.

Recently I read Seton’s “The Arctic Prairies: A Canoe-Journey of 2,000 Miles in Search of the Caribou,” first published in 1911, when John Finn was nearly 2 years old. The subject of the book, the journey itself, started in 1907.

Seton recounts stories, does science experiments, makes sketches of wild-life and narrates the journey he made to “unbroken forest and prairie leagues” with Edward A. Preble.

“On that same night we had a curious adventure with a weasel. All were sitting around the camp-fire at bedtime, when I heard a distinct patter on the leaves. ‘Something coming,’ I whispered. All held still, then out of the gloom came bounding a snow-white weasel. Preble was lying on his back with his hands clasped behind his head and the weasel fearlessly jumped on my colleague’s broad chest, and stood peering about. In a flash, Preble’s right elbow was down and held the weasel prisoner, his left hand coming to assist.

Now, it is pretty well known that if you and a weasel grab each other at the same time he has choice of holds. ‘I have got him,’ said Preble, then added feelingly, ‘but he got me first. Suffering Moses! The little cuss is grinding his teeth in deeper.’ The muffled screaming of the small demon died away as Preble’s strong left hand crushed out its life, but as long as there was a spark of it remaining, those desperate jaws were grinding deeper into his thumb. It seemed a remarkably long affair to us, and from time to time … one of us would ask, ‘Hello! Are you two still at it,’ or ‘How are you and your friend these times, Preble?’

In a few minutes it was over, but that creature in his fury seemed to have inspired himself with lock-jaw, for his teeth were so driven in and double-locked, that I had to pry the jaws apart before the hand was free. The weasel may now be seen in the American Museum, and Preble in the Agricultural Department at Washington, the latter none the worse.”

Preble was a naturalist whose bloodline included a distant great-great-great grandfather, the brother of Commodore Edward Preble who defeated the Barbary Pirates in the Mediterranean on orders of President Thomas Jefferson.

It was naturalist Edward Preble who became the center of a campfire Halloween story in late October 2007, just as the Arctic Prairies journey was coming to a close, after various adventures with lynxes, buffaloes, wolves and scores of other species.

We can imagine a young John Finn reading this book rapturously and enjoying the photos and drawings by the author.

Seton died 71 years ago this week, on Oct. 23, 1946, one year after the end of the war John Finn helped win.

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