I didn’t know her, but I was afraid. She was an imposing woman of grey hair, twisted tightly and somehow bolted in a bun to the top of her head. As cliché as it may sound, around her neck was a delicate chain to which was attached a pair of half-glasses; and those were perched out near the tip of her nose.
She was an imposing figure to me. I looked at her, standing beyond and in some way above the great counter. She had to be standing on something! The old woman seemed ten feet tall to me, but that could have been my fear once again speaking within my third-grade brain.
She appeared to be quite busy and when I opened my mouth to speak, my trepidation would allow not a sound to emerge.
It was my first visit to the Norco Public Library. I was there with Duane, his sister, Laura and their mother who I realized was standing behind me when she pushed my shoulder and said, “Speak up!”
The librarian moved only her eyes which now looked down upon my trembling form.
“Uhhh…. How…” my voice was a hoarse whisper which I tried to clear with a cough. “How do I check out a library book?”
She held her look for a long moment and then said, “Do you have a library card?”
She slapped a piece of paper on the counter and said, “Fill this out.”
I reached up with an unsteady hand and retrieved the slip of paper and the pencil she’d included. Moving to a nearby table I sat and then used my best cursive penmanship to complete the answers to the standard questions.
Now all I had to do was to muster up the courage to take the paper back to her. I remained seated and allowed my eyes to roam the colossal rows of books; each one set closely to the next, their mile-high shelves disappearing into a dark and distant abyss. Once I could marshal the courage to again approach the librarian—provided, of course, that she deemed me worthy of a library card—I’d then have to venture into that terrifying chasm of shelves to try to find a book to borrow. Anxiety built within my body but I had to quell it for the moment and focus on returning to the stern woman behind the counter.
I’m sure my little hand quivered as I reached up and placed the paper and pencil in front of her. She finished her task and then again shifted her eyes to me and then the paper. She picked it up and examined it.
“This all looks good,” she said. “We have a section for children right over there. Why don’t you go find something you think you’d like and I’ll have your library card waiting for you when you return.”
She looked me in the eye. “How many books do you think you can read in two weeks?”
Heck, I had no idea. I’d only read in class. I’d never read for my own pleasure.
In response to my gaping mouth and blinking eyes, she said, “Why don’t you find two that you think you might like. If you read them quickly, the next time you can check out more.”
I doubt that I thanked her but I turned and hurried off in her indicated direction to find the children’s section.
I was amazed. I was overwhelmed. I found books on more subjects than I’d ever imagined. I walked up and down that first aisle. I picked up books and leafed through them, then returned them to their shelves. I couldn’t choose. I think I felt as if I had to choose the perfect book, just in case I never made it back.
Down near my knee, it was probably the second shelf, I discovered a long row of books that all looked the same. They were an historical series written for juvenile males. I found a book on General Custer and then one on General Washington. (Each was written to glorify the exploits of the subject. The one on George Custer was written as if he was a hero and not the reckless fool who was so in love with his own image and desire to be president that he needlessly led 268 men to their deaths. If I can remember all those years ago, the one on Washington contained the story of the cherry tree and the dollar across the Potomac as if they were not apocryphal.)
Still unsure of the process, I carried the two books back to the towering front counter. I pushed them up and the librarian turned to me and took them. She looked at each one and then stamped something inside the cover of each. She placed my new library card on top and pushed the books back toward me.
“Congratulations on your first library card, Billy. I think you’ll enjoy the worlds you’ll discover in books.”
And then she smiled at me.
And the librarian was right. Over the decades I’ve been to the bottom of the sea and to Mars. I’ve ridden with Paul Revere just before the battles of Lexington and Concord and with General Patton in Sicily. I sailed with Lieutenant John Kennedy that fateful night in Blackett Straight and Charles Lindbergh across the Atlantic. I’ve been with pirates on a tropical island and I’ve orbited the earth with Mercury astronauts. I fell in love with Hypatia of Alexandria and mourned her murder, though it happened 16-hundred years ago. I’ve read of love and war and loyalty and betrayal. I’ve laughed and cried and have been so immersed in a story that I saw the sun rise before I could set it down.
And books have given me the ability to share some of my life, some of my adventures with you. True, I love the art of film. But, to me, nothing compares to the magical images elicited within the mind when reading a book.
And the smile of that stern librarian has lingered within my memory for more than half a century. Was her smile that of a kindred spirit or was she simply offering me encouragement to find my own joy and wonder? I have no idea who she was or even her name, but she handed me a small card which opened the doors to a lifetime of knowledge and adventure.
Thank you, Ma’am.