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Never Met a Stranger: Library, the soul of where you live, or Mom saves me from the Bird Lady

By T.W. Burger

A few years ago, library in a town I used to cover had to close. There had been a problem with an ancient water heater, and the resultant water leak had forced the place to close while cleanup commenced. It was like learning that an old friend had fallen seriously ill. I did not spend much time at that facility. But there is something, for those who love them, which makes every library home. When I was a kid, our community library in Athens lived on Clayton Street, in the old granite former home of some hot shot from long ago. It was a wonderful place with creaky staircases and deep windowsills where the sun poured in on long, tall wooden shelves packed with books. Here and there stood heavy oak reading tables, dark with age and use. I read a lot. Not always the best stuff, but constantly, especially through summer vacations. I tore through most of the titles in the science-fiction category, sometimes at the summertime rate of five or so books a week. In there among the aliens and faster-than-light travel I managed to read people like John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac, Thomas Wolfe, and others. In the summer of my 12th year, I tried to check out Kerouac’s On the Road.

You must understand that at the checkout desk at our library was The Bird Lady. I called her that because she was thin, angular, beaky, unpleasant, and the last bastion of morality in the modern world. She always dressed in black. I am sure she was only trying to prevent an impressionable mind (mine) falling under the spell of an artistic, free-thinking, poetic loser (that would be Kerouac.) She would not let me check it out. “You’re not old enough,” she said, snatching the book away and clutching it to the sooty black, nubbled fabric that covered her bosom. “You will have to bring a note from your parents.” I slouched dejectedly back to the vast beige Dodge where my mother waited. I plopped down on the seat with the measly two or three books I had checked out. “What’s the matter?” my mother asked. I hesitated. What if On the Road was (gulp.) A Dirty Book? Not that I minded the idea, of course, but I certainly did not want to admit to my own mother that I had wanted to check out ADB right there in front of her, God, and the vulturine librarian. I would be exiled. Grounded. Forbidden to read anything unless it had passed muster before every beady-eyed old lady, pastor, and parent from here to yonder. I sucked it up. “The lady at the desk said I couldn’t check out a book I wanted to read,” I said. “She said I wasn’t old enough.” What book, she wanted to know. I told her the title and said it was about a guy and his friends who traveled around the country learning stuff. That really is all I knew. “Come with me,” my mother said, and marched me up the gray stone steps and into the dark, musty rooms and to the librarian’s perch. I must mention here that my mother was a SPAR during World War II. SPARS are like WACS in the Army or WAVES in the Navy. SPARS were the women’s branch of the U.S. Coast Guard. For part of that time, she was the equivalent of a drill sergeant. Getting sassy with Mom was not a good tactic. The biddy of the books looked up as Mom moved at flank speed up to the desk, me bobbing apprehensively in her wake. Mom asked to see the book. The librarian handed it to her. Mom looked at the dust jacket, read the blurb, or at least scanned it. She dropped the book on the desk and pointed at me. “This is my son Terry. He can read any book he finds in this library. He would like to check it out now,” I was trying hard not to grin like a monkey. The librarian looked as though she had bitten into a piece of bad fish but checked the book. She used a bit more force than was necessary to stamp the due date on the little card inside the back cover, but maybe I was just imagining things. Funny, but the incident made me read more “serious” literature after that. It was as though with that freedom came more responsibility. This was serious stuff, this reading business. That old library is long gone now. The stone building is now offices for something. My hometown library is now an ultramodern affair with computers, recessed lighting, modern tables, all that. But they still have Kerouac, Steinbeck, Wolfe, and writers who have come along since then, adding their own voices to the conversation that a culture holds with itself, age after age. As far as I know, the illiterati have not started their mewling around in the stacks, seeking to ban this or that work. Sadly, they are protected by the small game laws, and we cannot shoot them. I checked. A library is more than a warehouse stuffed with books and electronic media. It is the collective memory of a people, its soul, even. A place where the ideas and passions lie, dormant, like seeds that will sprout over and over, for as long as we choose to go to the trouble of looking for them. A community without a library is like one of those characters in the classic horror film "Night of The Living Dead," moving around but with no real inner life.

T.W. Burger was raised in Athens. He graduated from Athens High School in 1967. He worked as a driver of everything from fork trucks to garbage trucks and concrete mixers, has been an apprentice mortician and ambulance attendant. He has been a newspaper reporter since 1985, mostly in Gettysburg, PA, with various stints at other publications. Semi-retired, he is still working as a freelance writer and lives on the banks of Marsh Creek just outside of Gettysburg. He is a columnist for Class in Athens, where he also was a contributing writer for The Flagpole magazine C He is the author of "The Year of the Moon Goose" is currently writing “Never Met a Stranger.”

ridge, NY; America in World War II Magazine, Harrisburg, PA; Flagpole Magazine, Athens, GA.

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