IN the end, it became a habit. I would come in late from an autumn evening out with friends - the large, dark house drifting toward silence, my parents asleep upstairs, and the thousand thoughts of a 15-year-old still racing through my mind. Pausing in the kitchen, I would mix a can of tuna with celery and mayonnaise. Then I would head for bed. There we would sit, the cat and I, huddled against the pillows in the only pool of light in the house, eating tuna from a bowl and letting the day jell.
And reading. In those days I never thought of myself as a literary type. I was, as they say, ''into'' the sciences; and a world of things, each solid and compelling in the as-yet-unchallenged assumption of its ultimate reality, filled my days. The symbols that mattered were not words. They were the hieroglyphs of the logarithmic tables, the schematics of electrical circuits, the elements of the periodic table. So I never thought to excuse myself for what I read. Others my age, long immersed in words, had seized on Dickens and Dostoyevsky, Kafka and Camus. Not I.In perfect unconcern for the proprieties of the educated mind, I read and reread ''Pogo.''
I couldn't have said why.Part of it, I suppose, has to do with a teen-ager's curious blend of the eight-year-old and the adult. Maybe reading the cartoon antics of Walt Kelly's swamp animals was something of a throwback, a habit never quite outgrown. Whatever the reason, I would pick up those well-tattered books and dip into them at random - swept instantly into sequences of frames that were at the same time entirely familiar, eminently predictable, and invariably hilarious.
Nor was I alone. Winters, my father and sister would chuckle over ''Pogo'' in front of the fire. Summers, the dozens of pogoisms we had absorbed would fix themselves in our vocabulary. In those days we were busy building a summer cottage on an almost-uninhabited Canadian lake. We improvised many things - the peeled spruce poles for the roof-beams, the names of uncharted bays and islands, the very language with which we conveyed our experience. And what a pogoesque tongue it was! ''Aaargh!'' we would exclaim in frustration, echoing Albert Alligator's bold-faced capitals. ''Gormy'' came to characterize bad weather. We named our canoe ''Gulpy,'' recollecting that once Pogo's friend Churchy Lafemme, moved to sobs by some touching occasion, had said, ''I come all over gulpy.'' We even appropriated - don't ask why - another of Albert's great growls (''Rowr!'') and, adding to it the Latin word (''Esox'') for one of the fish that abounded in our lake, christened our camp ''Esox Rowr.''
Why that fascination with ''Pogo''? What did a strip now remembered largely for a single aphorism - ''We have met the enemy, and they is us'' - have in it, that it could so shape a family's entire discourse?
I puzzled over that question for years - until, the other day, I found I could put it off no longer. So, finding that my original copies of the Pogo books had (as they say here in New England) ''come up missin','' I settled down one afternoon in the Boston Public Library to renew my acquaintance.
The librarian, looking only slightly askance at my request, went off to fetch me a half-dozen Pogo books. Sitting at an oak table among the marble statues and statue-quiet scholars of that somber, vault-ceilinged reading room, I thought of the hundreds of hours I'd spent since my teen-age years in libraries like this one. Somewhere along the way, things had given way to words: Since my last reading of ''Pogo,'' I had abandoned my chemistry set and my electronic gear and found my way into literature. The intervening years had filled themselves with James Joyce and Dylan Thomas, Wallace Stevens and E. E. Cummings - wordsmiths all, shaping their words as a cabinetmaker does his wood and tossing them, juggler-wise, into the air in hilarious sleight of hand. For them , I had learned, words were truly things.
Suddenly, to the sound of the librarian's retreating step, the familiar books were before me. I opened one cautiously - fearing that in the end they would prove merely silly, simple-minded, superficial. And as I steeled myself against disappointment, my eyes fell on the familiar frames - and Beauregard Hound and Howland Owl and old Sarcophagus MacAbre and Wiley Cat, and Snavely the snake (''harmless nor a caterpiggle''), and Ma'm'selle Hepzibah with whom Pogo himself was perpetually falling in love, all surged into life. There was that onomatopoeia with its almost medieval vigor: Albert grunting mmph-stbbt! grsr-yeep! as he lifted heavy loads, Pogo grumbling moomph! and growmp! in fits of jealousy. There was that silly boat, always with a different name and always tipping over in mid-sentence. It was all, in Pogo's word, ''DEE-licorice.''
And there, too, was something I had always sensed but never recognized: the mind of a wordsmith so in love with language that even in his silliest moments he sang with an almost Joycean energy. It was in the names, like Churchy Lafemme (cherchez la femme, as the French say) and Howland (Howling) Owl. It was in the speeches: ''Is you gonna volunteer,'' says Pogo to Churchy in an interchange spoofing man-made pollution, ''to be the First to suicidelicately sacerfice hisself to clear the polluters, human beans, from the earth?'' And it was all matched with that tremendous vitality of line, flowing from a bottomless font of wit and a love of incongruity.
Now, I am a restrained man. I am not given to outbursts. I hold libraries in high regard. But right there, amid the stares of those marble busts and the silence of scholarship, I exploded into laughter. Try as I would, I could not contain it: It was as though, after all those years, cat and tuna and ''Pogo'' were all reassembled, and I was alone again in that swampy and delightful world.
With a difference. This time, I knew why I was reading - knew, at last, that of the manifold influences along my path from things into words, that habit of ''Pogo'' had mattered as much as any.