NEW HAVEN, Conn. — James Arruda Henry had plenty to be proud of as a lobster boat captain who managed to build his own house and raise a family. But he kept a secret into his 90s, one that forced him to bluff his way through life by day and brought tears at night.
Henry was illiterate. He couldn’t even read restaurant menus; he’d wait for someone else to place an order and get the same food. Sometimes he’d go hungry rather than ask for help. Most of his family was none the wiser.
Now he’s 98, and his self-published collection of autobiographical essays is being read in elementary schools. “In A Fisherman’s Language” details his barefoot beginnings in Portugal, life in a tenement in Rhode Island, boxing as a young man and his adventures at sea.
“I didn’t think it was going to go too far,” Henry told The Associated Press in a phone interview this week from his home in the Connecticut seaport of Mystic. “I couldn’t read or nothing. I tell you, it makes me a very, very happy man to have people call me and write me letters and stuff like that.”
Henry said he was taken out of school around the third grade to go to work making concrete blocks, baking bread and doing other jobs. He recalls getting a dollar from his father on the Fourth of July.
“I was so happy that I went straight to the ice cream parlor,” he writes in his book. “I got a glass of milk, a piece of apple pie, a dish of ice cream. After I finished eating I had just enough money to buy a small pack of firecrackers. I lit one and they all went off!!”
When he applied for his driver’s license, all he could do was put down his name. When a friend told the inspector he was talking to a local “lobster king,” Henry managed to take his road test without finishing the application.
Throughout his life, he yearned to read and write but never found the time or opportunity. His nephew, he said, made Henry write him a letter, which took him a month. He found inspiration in a book about the grandson of a slave who became literate at 98. His granddaughter had read him an excerpt of the book, “Life is So Good” by George Dawson.
“I said if he can do it, I can do it,” Henry said. “That’s when I started to learn.”
Henry would stay up until midnight trying to make sense of words. Sometimes he’d fall asleep, the book crashing to the floor.
“That was my job, trying to break the words up,” he said. “A lot of nights I cried because I couldn’t pronounce the word or know what it meant.”
Henry at first practiced the alphabet on his own and relied on a children’s dictionary before turning to relatives and tutors for help, granddaughter Marlisa McLaughlin said.
Henry was reading slowly when he approached Mark Hogan, a 69-year-old literacy volunteer, for tutoring in 2010. He said Henry was the one who brought up the idea of a book.
“This has blown me away,” Hogan said. “It’s been a rewarding experience for me, too. I guess I’m more content with my advancing age when I see what he could do with his.”
A granddaughter, Alicia Smith, had the idea of sending the book on a cross-country journey as a literary chain letter of sorts, great-granddaughter Maxine Smith said. A copy started its trip at an elementary school in Connecticut and is heading off Friday to one in Berkeley, Calif.
It has sold 3,000 copies since its publication in November. It’s available on Kindle, and Henry plans to send a copy to the White House in the hopes that President Barack Obama will sign it. (No word yet from the White House.) One of the more emotional stories describes Henry’s sorrow after his cousin fell overboard and drowned during a fishing run.
“I stayed in bed for at least three weeks,” Henry writes in his book. “I just wanted to die myself. My wife kept telling me it wasn’t my fault. I done the best I could to save him.”
Henry — who had two daughters with his wife, Jean, who died in 2005 — now acts as a reading advocate for the young and old. He gives talks to students and this week plans to address an adult education convention in Mystic.
“Don’t be afraid to go ahead and try,” he said. “It’s hard, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll enjoy it.”