The Secret Lives of Used Books (The Call of the Wild, by Jack London)

Jon Zobenica
4 min readNov 28, 2022
The Call of the Wild, by Jack London (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1962 edition)

Oakland, California’s Montera Junior High School — founded in 1959, and from which this copy of The Call of the Wild came — was almost named Jack London Junior High. A parent-teacher association initially proposed three options: Montera Junior High, Jack London Junior High, and Pineview Junior High. But before a vote could be held on the matter, the same association withdrew the Jack London suggestion, saying that “London was not a fit person for the honor.” (The hard-drinking author died at the age of forty, in 1916, in what some suspected was a deliberate drug overdose.)

Humorist and columnist Herb Caen quipped in an October 1959 San Francisco Chronicle that the students themselves voted down the proposal, out of fear that “they’d be known thereafter as ‘Jack London Squares’” — a double entendre perhaps only those familiar with Oakland and the Bay Area will understand. At any rate, the November 4, 1959, Oakland Tribune reported that when the naming options were actually put to a vote, 159 people selected Montera Junior High, 14 remained loyal to Jack London, and one — a wag, rebel, or true believer indicative of those Cold War years — wrote in a vote for Karl Marx.

Of the fifteen or so students who checked out the book in the 1970s and 1980s, little can be learned. Lauralyn Lee apparently went on to graduate from Oakland’s Skyline High School (class of 1987) and now works as a physical therapist in Palo Alto. Jim Ireland possibly graduated from Skyline as well (class of 1976) and may now be working as a realtor. Julie Douglas may be a clown. No joke. But one of Lauralyn’s schoolmates wrote an interesting confessional on LinkedIn, about what it was like to be gay and effeminate at Montera Junior High in the early 1980s. The focus of his small essay was the almost militarized nature of P.E. class, which involved the boys wearing color-coded shorts that identified and ranked them according to athletic ability: gray shorts were for “rookies,” or those least athletic; next were royal-blue shorts; then black, for the hard-core athletes; then, for those of surpassing, almost Olympian ability, gold shorts.

This system — also an artifact of those Cold War years — was borrowed from another California school, a high school whose P.E. instructor encouraged group-level feats of strength and agility far in excess of those required by America’s military. The school and its system were featured in the January 30, 1962, issue of Look magazine, and from there caught the attention of President Kennedy, who gave a hearty endorsement to the entire program. In the minds of some, there was a thin line (if any) that separated pull-ups, patriotism, and citizenship in those days.

As an elementary-school student in the mid-1970s, I too experienced a somewhat militarized P.E. class, run by an old instructor who’d spent several years in the Army during World War II. We were trained (boys and girls alike) to march into the gymnasium in a kind of parade formation, observing a cadence and executing sharp right faces, left faces, forward marches, and halts. We did not, however, adopt any color-coded shorts hierarchy. In fact, during the swimming portion of P.E. (in the school’s indoor pool, and during which the boys and girls were scheduled on different days), the boys — by tradition that long preceded my arrival on the scene — wore no shorts whatsoever. Before entering the water, we’d stand abreast one another along the side of the pool, naked as can be, and hold out our hands waist-high, palms down, for fingernail inspection. Farm boys with dirt or grease under their nails might be reprimanded and reminded of the relationship between clean bodies and clean minds.

All these years later, it sounds suspect in the retelling, and more than one person with whom I’ve shared these memories has pointed out that “fingernail inspection” conveniently drew the instructor’s gaze down to our prepubescent wing-wangs (which were already in retreat at the prospect of hitting that cold water). But there were no lascivious undertones at play. Rather, there was a kind of Norman Rockwell, bare-assed-at-the-swimming-hole innocence about it. In addition to learning to swim, we were being taught not to be excessively self-conscious. It was all a fading remnant of a bygone fashion, part of an old-man’s world of snot rags and ruggedness, harking back to a time when — like Jack London — we were more in touch with and more accepting of our animal status.

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Jon Zobenica

A former senior editor at The Atlantic, now living in California. jonzobenica.wordpress.com