Nineteen-forty--three, the summer of my eleventh year, was an important year: for the world and me. The time of fascism was running out as World War II rumbled in faraway lands. Bereaved mothers hanging the star of sacrifice in living room windows hardly disturbed the quiet routine of central
Mississippi's countryside. Heat devils danced in the fields as the sun cooked King Cotton out of the good earth. I discovered the magic of reading. Life went on.
[quoteright]In the good years before the great depression, flush farmers with high hopes for their progeny had built my schoolhouse. They thought eight grades to be enough and had chosen a simple design: a large auditorium, and on each corner a big classroom where a teacher held two classes. No frills, just reading, 'riting, 'rithmetic, and multiple use teachers. The auditorium was of multiple use also. It served as a neighborhood center for political rallies (They were FUR Democrats to a man.) and on rare festive occasions, some good old down-home country music entertainment.
The school library was limited to a few dog-eared National Geographic magazines, and I soon discovered that by going to the Principal's home on the school grounds a few days after the rural-free-delivery postman came by, I could get his copy of Life magazine. Answering my knock one day, he opened the door to the westering sun and a boy with bare feet overalls and a mop of dusty dark hair. To my hesitant question of, "Have you finished that Life book yet?" he responded, "Yes, wait a moment and I'll get it for you." Returning and handing me a passport to hours of fanciful dreams, he hesitated, then asked, "Have you ever thought of going to the library in town?"
"Liberry?" I asked, knowing that I had just been introduced to something new. He then told we that in town, those city folks had a great big building full of all kinds of books to be loaned out just for the asking.
The next Saturday that my grandmother figured she had enough egg money left over for me to go to the movie, she let me go to town with her. She had no idea that my plans included more than the Roy Rogers, Gene Antry or Lash LaRue movie that might me playing at the Palace Theater.
I well remember standing in front of Court's grocery on South Main Street and edging over to the shady part of the sidewalk where an egg wouldn't fry, so as to take some of the strain off my feet. The socio-economic line dividing town people and country people also divided north Main and South Main Street, just about as visible and identifiable as Broadway Avenue. My goal was to the North, in the heart of strange and possibly hostile territory. It took a while to harden my resolve.
Courage gathered and loins girded, I set out on a long hike. Past Planter's Hardware, Western Auto, Delta National Bank, Miller's Pharmacy, the post office; I ventured further into the unknown. Just short of the red brick public school building where they had twelve grades, there it stood, a big white stone building sitting back on wide lush green lawns studded with huge oaks standing over spots of cool, deep, dark shade.
Formidable it was, squat and wide, with dark windows and heavy glass double doors through which I could dimly see shapes and forms. The cool marble porch with the strange letters on the roof was a good place to stand -- a welcome relief from the sidewalk. The slowly opened door loosed a strange musty smell, and foreign sensations flooded my mind as the cool air chilled my skin. Single-minded purpose waded knee-deep through fear for the score of steps to the counter. The buxom, gray haired lady swept away some apprehensions by asking, "May I help you?"
"Yes'm, I come to git some books."
I remember only the elation of leaving, summer heat unnoticed, with the three books I promised to return; the process of cards, penalties, names and addresses forgotten.
Then came the years, until age seventeen, of Saturdays, the library, a cardboard box full of books. Times when I couldn't go, my grandmother would, and her idea of literary selection was one off each shelf. Ideas and impressions were formed and a strange, different outside world filled with half-real, half-fictitious people and places emerged from printed pages and light from a coal oil lamp.
I learned of the travels of Ulysses, Marco Polo, and Buck Finn; I rode through the purple sage with Zane Grey, followed Jack London from the wolf's den to a ships foc'sle; helped Marcellus carry the Robe and Mr. Christian scuttle the bounty at Pitcairn; discovered Yellowstone with John Coulter and the Sandwich Islands with Captain Cook; defeated the Spanish with Admiral Drake and the Yankees with General Lee; and eventually found that my valley was green because that's where the Grapes of Wrath grew.
I also learned, later, that a child of Backwoods Bible Belt Puritanism with a library education is ill prepared to cope with the modern world. Fortunate he is if his solace of reading will comfort him while his hide hardens.
The aged, and now dead, grandmother some years ago said, "Son, you remember the lady at the liberry that you used to go back to see. Well, she was asking about you a while back, just before she died." A friend's concern and my neglect left a hurt. Thus her passing marked another chapter closed, another era ended. Life goes on.
Infrequent returns to the places of childhood memories take me past, but not in, the only library deservingly called "The Library."
It's always a pleasure when Southern Gentleman Allen Pettit takes time out caring for his Macon Plantation to write sketches of growing up.
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