Friday, August 25, 2017

Twenty-one Days Until TEOTWAWKI - Day 16 (Books Make a Difference)

We moved a lot when I was a youngster.  It wasn't until I was much older that I learned the truth about those moves.  My father's job, as an officer in the US Army, forced those moves on us, and while the military pays for the moves, they only allow so many pounds of household goods per family.

Books are heavy.

We didn't have a lot of books when I was growing up, because we moved, and my parents knew that there were a lot of other more valuable items that should be packed and moved than books.  So, unlike my children, I didn't grow up going to book warehouse sales and bringing home boxes of books.  Or spending an entire morning sorting through the bookshelves and creating a donate stack that's as tall as the keep stack.

I was in the sixth grade when I purchased my first "new" book by myself.

We knew a few days before it arrived that our school would be paid a visit by the Book Mobile.  I couldn't have been more excited if we were told Santa was bringing us all a box of candy and a million dollars.  I begged my mom for money so that I could buy a book.

The day the Book Mobile arrived, those of us who had cash were taken to the library, where we were lined up, single-file, at the door leading out into an alley way between two wings of the school building.  We would be allowed to enter the hallowed sanctuary in pairs so that there wouldn't be too many people in there at a time.  We waited, patiently impatient, tittering in hushed whispers about what we thought we'd find when it was finally our turn to enter the magic realm of Scholastic books.

A girl, who had been two people in front of me, came back into the library, a huge smile plastered on her face, clutching a paperback with a colorful, shiny cover.  The librarian called me forward and led me out of the steps, into the alley.

"Careful there on the stairs," she cautioned as I approached the Book Mobile.

It was an RV-style vehicle with rickety metal steps.  It purred with a generator somewhere that kept the lights on and the AC maintaining an optimum temperature for healthy books.

I grasped the metal railing on one side of the stairs, pulled my weight onto one foot, and reached for the door handle with a sweaty palm.

A kindly woman sat behind a low table that held a cash register.  She looked up and smiled as I stepped into the dimly lit interior.

"Welcome," she said.

I gave her a shy smile, closed my eyes, and deeply inhaled the new book smell.

Home.  That was my first thought.

As my eyes adjusted, I looked down the length of the narrow interior.   Floor to ceiling shelves lined both sides of the walkway and were stuffed with books.  Every genre.  Every topic.  Every thought, desire, hope, and fear of every human on the planet filled those pages.

I nearly fainted and reached my hand into my pocket, clutching the two one-dollar bills my mom had given me.  The flyer had stated that the average cost per book was $2.  That's what I had.  Enough for one book.  It's all we could afford.  

How was I going to choose just ONE?

Three years previously, after having moved, on average, once a year every year, the Army moved us to what would become my father's last duty station.  My parents had purchased a brand new home in an up-and-coming, middle-class, suburban neighborhood.  My sisters and I had all of what we needed and most of what we wanted.  

Every summer, we drove nine hours north to visit my grandmother on her farm in southeastern Kentucky.  My uncles teased us and called us "City Kids."  

I stood in the doorway of the cavernous room, swallowing a big lump.  The kindly woman behind the table asked if she could help me.

"Are you looking for anything in particular?"

I shook my head no.

"Feel free to browse," she offered, giving me a verbal nudge.

I shuffled down the aisle, looking at titles and cover art work.  The whole idea of "don't judge a book by its cover" is sound advice, but not practical, in the sense that, most of us DO choose a book based on the cover art.

I picked up a book with a boy on the cover.  It appeared to be night.  The boy was holding a lantern aloft, peering into the darkness.  In the other hand, he held an ax.  He was stepping over a log, and there were two hunting dogs at his feet - one on either side of him.

Not being a boy and not living in the country where I might hunt, I'm not sure what intrigued me about the book.  I have no idea, to this day, why it interested me, but when I saw it, I knew, immediately, that it was my choice.

Blood roared in my ears deafening me, and clutching the book to my chest, I sprang up to the register and proudly handed her my $2.  She gave me change, which I dropped into my pocket without counting.  

"That's a good book," she smiled approvingly.

The title of the book is Where the Red Fern Grows.  I've read it four times, at least, with the last time not too long ago when it ended up as one of our read-aloud bedtime books.

Unlike most women my age, I never read the Little House series when I was a kid, but I read Where the Red Fern Grows over and over, and even though I know what happens, I cry every single time I read it.  Every.  Single. Time.

That book is one of those that has stayed with me.  It was one of those books that had a profound and lasting impact on the person I have become.  

When I was a kid, it was all about the story, and Billy and Little Ann and Big Dan.  It was all about their adventures and the tragedies.  

As an adult, I had a greater appreciation for the details, like Rawls' description of Billy's money saving efforts - how he found a tin can, which he polished to a high sheen with just sand.  How he was enterprising and creative, selling vegetables and bait to the fishermen down by the creek for dimes and nickels.  How he trapped small animals for their hides, which he tanned and sold at his grandfather's store.  

I loved how he spent TWO YEARS saving that money, and when he had saved up what he thought the dogs would cost, he discovered he had more money than he needed, and he bought cloth for his mother and candy for his sisters.

Let's pause a second here and take that in.  He polished a can using sand.  Seriously?  How long did that take?  A few hours?  A day?  More?  He trapped and skinned small animals so that he could sell the hides.  Having done it, I know first hand that tanning a hide properly takes time.  He spent years saving the money he needed for two hound dogs.  Two YEARS.  These days most of us can't even stay focused enough on a goal to pursue it for two months.  

At the end of his two years, when he was finally able to purchase his dogs, he had to pick them up from the breeder himself.  The breeder was in Kentucky.  He lived in Missouri.  He didn't have a car or a wagon or a bicycle.  Heck, that time of year, he didn't even have shoes!  He had feet.  He walked, and it took him DAYS to get there.  

He didn't spend weeks planning the trip and buying lots of fancy tents and hiking gear.  He packed an empty feed sack with a couple of days' worth of food (a jar of peaches and a couple of pieces of corn bread and water), and walked all of those miles, through the mountains, to get his dogs.  

He walked to Kentucky.  From Missouri.  Most of us these days can't walk across a big parking lot.  

Life was slow for Billy and unencumbered by the distractions of this modern life we lead. I loved the very simple life Billy and his family lived in the mountains, and I mourned with him and for him when his family had to leave their homestead.

It makes me think about how complicated we make our lives - how most of us have exactly what we NEED, but we believe we need so much more.  We are constantly bombarded with the message that a couple of hunting dogs is not enough to make us happy.

I think we learn a lot from books, and while that book is, at its core, an adventure story about a young boy growing up very poor, it's not about deprivation.  Billy has everything he needs ... except a couple of dogs ... and HE makes that happen for himself.  It's about resiliency and self-sufficiency, and friendship and loyalty.  It's about what makes us human.

I was so moved as a child, and I'm so impressed as an adult.

Where the Red Fern Grows is not a how-to book in the sense that it teaches us how to preserve fresh produce from the garden or forage wild food or make soap or cook cornbread, but it does teach one very important lesson.  

Enough is enough for us to survive and thrive.  

What's that one book in your childhood that stood out?


  1. 'Ballet Shoes' by Noel Streatfeild.

  2. Later childhood, but the Sand County Almanac always has been one of my favorites. I read it as a tween and have re-read it dozens of times.

  3. My book was Mandy.

    A plain little girl growing up in an orphanage in England wants a home so badly, but is "too old" and watches other prettier, younger kids get families. As she wanders the woods around the orphanage, one day she finds an abandoned, tiny caretaker's cottage, and makes it her own. She cleans it out, using a thrown out broom and old rags that she washes out in the ice water from the well (or creek?) She plants seeds that she bought at the half-price table with her 5p in weekly pocket money, and plants them in the garden after she clears the weeds and brambles. She gathers wood for a fire, and takes her lunch out there every few days, enjoying her little home. Long story short, she ends up being adopted by the family that owns the cottage. What I loved, always, is that she wanted a home badly enough to make it happen. Rather than spend her pennies on candy like the other kids, she saved and bought soap and seeds, and worked her fingers to blisters to create a place of her own. I used to re-read the parts where she chose the seeds, and swept the dust and mice nests out...and go back and read them again, rarely actually bothering to finish the book, where she got adopted at the end. It always seemed incidental to the real story.