I am an old man, and so too I am an old story. Some people tell me that my short tales too often look backward, into my long-ago years. These kind, tentative readers go on to say that immersing oneself in the nostalgic fantasy that the good old days were somehow better, more comfortable, easier to understand and so easier to negotiate is an intrinsically foolish notion. Further, they suggest evidence that contradicts the supposed good that defined the old days. They point out wars wherein evil dictators subjugated and murdered those they considered their lesser enemies. As well, these occasional readers remind me of the overt expressions of rank racism that were daily accepted, or worse ignored, by the folks who built the Twilight Zone town of Willoughby (Season 1, Episode 30). In short, my disappointed readers mention facts that indeed make it clear that not all was good back in the good old days. Far from it.
Nonetheless, I persist in traveling backward to the familial and societal practices that were truer, cleaner, more hopeful and yes, better than those practiced today. I also write about the fine and friendly traditions of my good old days that have today survived and thrived.
I LEARN TO LOVE READING
My mother, angry and depressed person though she was most of the time, recognized that I was a smart kid. She taught me to read well before I began grammar school, and with what little spare money she had after feeding and clothing four boys and a husband, she bought me a few books. Like most children who early on catch the reading bug, I would read whatever book she placed in front of me.
Heidi quick became one of my favorite stories. After completing my endless line of chores, I’d close myself inside my bedroom, lie belly down on my bed, wiggle my body close to the cool plaster wall, and enter Heidi’s world, a safe world, where her at first hesitant grandfather soon comes to love, guide and protect her. Back then, I couldn’t have arranged the words to explain what I felt while I read, but I felt more comforted and more protected in Heidi’s world than in my own. I wanted to travel to snowy Switzerland, there to meet Grandfather, Heidi and Klara.
I CRAVE COMFORT & ESCAPE INSIDE LIBRARIES
Most of my classmates mentally hopped about inside their maplewood school seats when June arrived. They dreamt of playing street football; of being a Little League Baseball hero; or of careening down the steep hill of Thompson Avenue, their feet snuggly keyed into metal roller skates. Bicycle races, too, were popular, especially the ones that often ended in crashes that warriors would recount for days afterward. For those boys and girls, all of that exertion of the body meant freedom. Freedom from the strict enforcement of school rules and a fresh-air break from the incomprehensible mysteries of mathematics.
But none of that dreaming was for me. I was a nerd, although the word nerd wasn’t one of those used by my mates to describe me, not way back then. Weirdo, retard, pussy, and sometimes faggot. The reason? Two reasons, actually. 1. I loved school. I wanted to learn more. I didn’t want the school year to end. 2. Summers spent at home with my mother meant that I’d be allowed no time for playing with my classmates; and I could not tell them the reason. The telling would only make things worse at home. Explaining further, even here today, would only spoil the heart of this article: Libraries are indeed an escape, especially for an intelligent but troubled child. I could not tell my classmates that I wasn’t allowed to play with anyone during the summer months.
My seventh grade teacher, Mr. Steven Bretcher, told us that we had to be twelve years old to be eligible for a public library card. Once I met Mr. Bretcher, I knew the true meaning of stern. The man never smiled. He wore the same, square-shouldered suit each day. He placed his desk at the back of the room, and from there he watched — and I imagine he hoped for — some dull but innocent kid to commit a sin, a slight infraction of the rules. Linda Williams, dressed in a prim, pleated skirt and a lacey white blouse, lit Mr. Bretcher’s fuse one morning by reading the morning bible passage too slowly. “Can’t you just say water fast like everyone else, fer chrissake?” he screamed. Linda started to weep. “Not that act again,” he yelled. “Just go sit down.”
I can say for sure that Mr. Bretcher was not one of the good things about the good old days. Nowadays, however, I feel sorry for him. At that time, not too many men taught seventh grade. I suspect that Steve Bretcher hated his job. Further I suspect that he felt trapped. I knew even then how being trapped feels. Maybe he should have tried the library.
The twelve-year-old rule sort of ruined my plans, or rather postponed them. My twelfth birthday that year wouldn’t arrive until Friday, August 10th. Summer birthdays were a drag for several reasons, one being that it was tough to get invitations out to kids who are off vacationing, while you’re home cleaning the toilet for the third time that week. On the positive side of nature, you could say I acquired a strong work ethic by way of my mother’s sick and strict rules regarding cleanliness and godliness.
I ARRIVED AND HUDDLED INSIDE THE PINK LIBRARY
That summer, I worked my chores without complaint. As well, I praised my mother for her attention to every detail, for her neverending hunt for the one dustball that escaped the vacuum tube, for her use of a magnified eye when checking the bathroom’s corners for a vagrant pubic hair.
And I intermittently thanked her for teaching me to read. I effervesced when I spoke of the books she had purchased for me. I enthused whenever I scrubbed the kitchen floor, the whole time quoting Robert Frost.
I’ll never be sure if my mother took my thanks to heart and melted, or if she just became so sick and tired of hearing my romantic poetry that she surrendered, figuring it might be better to imprison me inside the local library than to listen to me croak on about which road I’d take.
Whichever, or whatever. I today must be kind and realize that my mother, an avid reader herself, understood my craving for books. Books, and the stories within them, were to me more delicious than any food. I feel the same way today (although I admit that if one day I’m starving to death, I’ll beg for manicotti before even thinking about Richard Yates or Daphne DuMaurier).
On Saturday, August 11th, my mother and I walked the mile and a half up Main St., turned right on West Washington Blvd. and made our way to the local library’s front door.
The building was made of cinderblock walls, painted pink. Perhaps ten rows of blocks were piled one on top of the other, cement stripes between each row, before the walls gave way to wide picture windows. I stared through those windows at the rows of books that were lined up there. Here and there, between those lines of books vines of green philodendron climbed down from the ceiling.
We walked inside and approached the librarian’s desk. I’ll never remember her name, but the kindness inside her voice remains with me today. Library cards were filled out with typewriter and fountain pen. I held the card in my hand, stared at my full name on the top line, and something inside my chest swelled.
After a brief walkaround, the librarian explaining all the way the meaning of the Dewey Decimal System, and the way to use the card catalog, both ladies left me alone to browse. Alone for a time that felt endless and full of adventure.
I bent down and lay on my belly, wiggled my body close to the shelf of books that first took my fancy. I pulled out one book, scanned a few pages, then repeated the process many times over, until I realized that I could stay right there, that I could live inside that pink library and read there for the rest of my life. I was twelve just the day before. As such, I still ignored that nagging adult sense of practicalities.
After what might have been an hour, I walked out of that pink library, with two books in my right hand, and my mother’s hand inside my left. Eli Whitney, Master Craftsman. We Were There At The Battle For Bataan.
If God lay there with me that day, then perhaps He could explain my choice of books. I can say only — and yes, I repeat myself here — that back then, back in the good old days of my youth, if you handed me most any book, I’d find that book interesting.
Nowadays, near the end of my voyage along the river, I am more apt to put a book down if that book doesn’t take me away. But wouldn’t life as an old man be so much more wonderful if that man could reawaken his child’s sense of enthusiasm?
At the least, I am to this day in love with libraries. May they always exist to serve the great population of kind readers.