THE WINTER OF MY FIRST LIBRARY CARD
Colder’n a grave-digger’s behind here this winter! Or a banker’s heart…
Anyway…it got me thinking that I may not have become a writer if I’d grown up somewhere warm. What made me fall in love with reading was warming up in the Leach Public Library in Wahpeton, North Dakota, back in the 1970s when I was delivering newspapers—both the Wahpeton Daily Newsand the Fargo Forum. Before I started the fifth grade, I wasn’t all that big on reading. I preferred comic books when I could find them, and television—westerns and Star Trek.
In the fifth grade, however, our English textbook was filled with many great stories that I really tumbled for. Some that I remember best were: “In Another Country,” by Ernest Hemingway, “Beware of the Dog,” by Roald Dahl, and “Wine on the Desert” by Max Brand.
One Friday afternoon, during our private reading time, my teacher passed out an issue of Scholastic Magazineentirely devoted to Jack London stories including “Odyssey of the North,” “The White Silence,” and my all-time favorite story by anyone--“To Build a Fire.” I can still see the atmospheric pencil illustrations that accompanied those tales arranged in clean columns of black type, and I can smell the slightly musty, acidic smell of the pulp paper they were printed on.
Reading for me has always been a multi-sensory experience involving not just the narrative evoked by the words but by the ink and paper and glue they’re printed on, as well as what I’m hearing and seeing around me while I’m reading, and even my mood. To this day I can’t reread “To Build a Fire” without remembering the creaking and knocking of the radiators in that fifth-grade Central Junior High classroom in which I’d first read the tale, and the fruity smell of the purple bubblegum someone had stuck to one of those tired old heaters. I also remember the feeling of warmth and security I’d felt as I read those words, and the simple joy that rose in me from the sensual magic of living inside a story.
Those first narratives whetted my appetite for more, but I’m not sure I would have continued reading on my own unless I’d started stopping at the library on cold winter evenings midway through my nightly newspaper route. The library in Wahpeton was strategically located about halfway through my journey, and by the time I got that far my toes were usually numb inside my snowmobile boots, and Jack Frost was chomping down hard on my nose.
So, with my ink-stained canvas satchel hanging off my shoulder, I’d clomp up the wide stone steps in my heavy winter boots, and enter the regal, high-ceilinged and varnished halls of the library. At first, the building was intimidating. It was so clean and quiet, and there was all that wood and the smell of varnish and books, and older people sitting around concentrating and whispering. There was an off-putting church-like quality. A backsliding Lutheran even then, I’d had my fill of churches.
The librarians always made me a little panicky. I still remember them vividly, as if I’d seen them only last week. There were three—two older ladies, one with immaculately coifed gray hair, and another with dyed brown hair. Both were heavy, and they breathed heavily and wore lots of makeup and jewelry and perfume whose cloying scents dogged you throughout the building. The daughter of one of the older women—the gray-haired one, I think--worked behind that long, blond oak desk, as well. While she was much younger, she still had a rather intimidating forthrightness about her. She was slender and pretty. She dressed in flannel shirts and jeans and wore wire-rimmed glasses, giving her a vaguely hippie air, but, like the others, she seemed a little fed up, and she rarely smiled.
Still, later, when I’d summoned the courage to ask for a library card and to begin checking out books, the young librarian was the only one I would go to when I wanted to check out Mickey Spillane novels. She never batted an eye. The two older ladies always made it known with grunts and chuffs and severe furlings of their brows and pursings of their lips what they thought of lowbrow literature--especially in the hands of a twelve-year-old paperboy--which has always been a staple of mine. I remember one of them flatly refusing to let me check out Fear of Flying by Erica Jong, though that only made me want to read it more, which I eventually did, by god.
When I first started warming up in the library, that’s about all I did. I’d slink off to a far corner, sit down in a creaky wooden Windsor chair, and tap my boots until I started to feel my toes again. Eventually, I started to while away the time by picking up a book here or there. I’d choose at random musty old books or the shiny new paperbacks displayed on the spinner racks near where the magazines were displayed and a few old chairs and sofas were arranged. That was where the old men sat in their unzipped rubber galoshes, reading Louis L’Amour westerns, occasionally honking into their hankies and smelling like sweat and tobacco.
Little by little, cold night after cold night, those narratives would lure me in, and I’d find myself sitting there reading The Martian Chronicles, The Grapes of Wrath, The Girl Hunters, Martin Eden, Jaws, or The Bell Jar, until I realized I was sweating inside my longjohns, and my feet were so hot they felt like melting plastic.
I had to face facts. I couldn’t limit my reading to the library anymore. The heat was killing me. I had to summon my courage to walk up to that long, blond, oak desk and ask one of those surly women to go to the trouble of typing out a library card for this snot-nosed urchin.
My very own card!
I was assured by my teachers at school I was allowed one, though I for some reason didn’t think that I, a scruffy ink-stained paperboy with loud snow boots and a bad cowlick, really deserved one. What’s more, I didn’t think the library ladies would think I did, either.
I wanted to take books home in the worst way, so I could continue reading in the privacy of my basement lair, with only the sump pump to pester me. Eventually, rehearsing the query over and over in my head, I worked up the courage to take that long, slow walk to the long, blond, oak desk behind which the old ladies muttered furtively as they checked in books, processed new ones, gently remonstrated the younger librarian, brewed coffee in a gurgling urn, and nibbled brownies. I felt like Tom Horn being led to the gallows.
The gray-haired lady reeking of too much perfume didn’t seem to approve of my last name; she kept spelling it wrong and huffing and puffing as she ripped the card out of the old Royal to start over with a weary sigh. Eventually, my very own personal library card, with my name spelled correctly, resided in my wallet. It was the only thing in there for several more years. It gave me respectability, at least in my own eyes.