Once There Was a Library ©2015

Part Two: The way of the world, by L.E. Taylor

CHARLIE BURNIE HAD BEEN a green U. S. Army infantryman in the bloody push across Europe in 1944. A decade later, during the ’54 summer session at Western Michigan College, he became an unlikely comrade in manhood with young Danny McRae.

The two were neither roommates nor classmates, but for six weeks, both lived in the quaint, musty old Vandercook Hall for men, a dormitory just down the road from the venerable campus Library.

The rubric of bull sessions in dorms is older than dorms, but the luxury of an older man imparting wit and wisdom to an appreciative young whelp is a joy mutually held. The buildings of yesteryear had no air conditioning – in Michigan none was missed until a relatively few ardent, or misguided, scholars arrived during the sultry dogdays of June and July. Danny cranked his casement windows wide and left his hall door open, all day and into the night. The result was something resembling a breeze. It was good enough.

Every evening and some balmy afternoons, Danny, in skivvies sans T-shirt, propped himself at the headboard of his Spartan bed, and he read. Conrad, Maugham, Poe, Hemingway, Eliot, and dozens of others on the list were his company – and sometimes his soporific. One afternoon, a gangly fellow (an old guy, at least thirty) poked his balding head in and said hi.

The guy was not intrusive, nor was he unctuous. He was just another summer grunt of no particular demeanor who blundered in, ordinary looking, but well-spoken. “Any idea where to get a schedule of the buses to the other campus?”

Danny told him where to look. They drifted into lively conversation, and in an hour were new buddies.

When Danny arrived next morning at the dorm coffee shop Charlie was already there, directing the elderly counter lady. “No, not the tea, dear, the creamer… there… no, dear, yes, that’s it.”

Danny noticed the patronizing “dear,” not as a condescension, but as a gentlemanly kindness. He would have said “ma’am.”

After dusk, these two odd fellows took to walking the sidewalks and pathways of this mid-American college movie-set. They talked and joked and commiserated.

Charlie was married, a junior high school teacher in a rural district. As many others, he was in summer session at this “normal” (i.e., teacher-training) college to accumulate hours toward his master’s degree.

Charlie talked. “When I was in undergrad school in Ohio Rachel was the hottest woman I ever had before or since. She was a nympho.”

“What’s a nympho?”

“A female who’s crazy about having sex. And I mean crazy.”

Danny picked up a stone from the darkening pavement and threw it at a No Parking sign. It rattled off the sign and into the night.

“We’d go up into the biology lab at night, and…”

“Who?” Danny asked. “You said, ‘we,’ who’s we?”

“Rachel! The nymphomaniac. We’d get into the biology lab at night and do it.”

“Do what? Where?”

It. On the tables, on the floor, standing up at the window while it snowed outside. She was the greatest” A beat. “She was Jewish.” Charlie sighed. “The greatest.”

They passed under a street lamp and Danny spied a nicely shaped rock. He wound up and cast it overhand deep into the night toward a STOP sign up the block. It reported, “Bang!”

“Will you stop doing that!” Charlie barked. Danny laughed, but accepted the rebuke. They walked along in silence. If Danny had been older he might have recognized Charlie’s crankiness for what it was. Charlie, the jaded veteran, world-weary before his time, was dreading middle age while Danny faced nothing but a young now that would never end. He lived in the moment.

“Did you ever get any medals in the War?” Danny asked.

Charlie shifted gears. “Yeah. One. It was nothing. It was a joke.”

“What happened?”

They walked. Charlie seemed distant. “It was stupid, like most of the boring crap in war.” Danny stayed quiet. “As the Germans retreated, they’d leave equipment and other shit to block the roadways. And they’d boobie-trap it.” Charlie’s voice had become a matter-of-fact monotone. “My platoon was advancing and we came to a big makeshift barrier… tree limbs and boards the krauts had dumped in the road. There were deep ditches on both sides, so we came to a halt. We just hunkered down. Nobody wanted to go out into the open and move it. They’d bury land mines, the Germans. We just sat there. Finally, I just got up and said oh the hell with this. I walked out on the road and dragged the blockade aside. That’s all.”

Danny was about to reply.

Charlie said, “I have to give an oral reading in my Speech class next week. No idea what to read. Any suggestions?”

“What kind of reading?” Danny asked.

“A dramatic reading.”

“Well the Bible’s out.” They laughed. Danny said, “How about the Richard the Second speech about England?”

“What’s that?

“Shakespeare. You know, ‘…this sceptered Isle, this blessed plot, this England!’ ”

Next day Danny and Charlie met at the Library’s front desk. The librarian asked how she might help. Charlie blurted out, “Where’s Willie-The-Shake?” Danny translated and they were led into the sacred darkness of The Stacks. The kind young woman handed a tome to Danny and with a wary glance at Charlie, said she’d be at the desk. They stood in the light of a leaded window and Danny read the passage aloud. Charlie stared at this kid, bemused, then he grinned, and pronounced it perfect.

One of Danny’s summer classes fulfilled a Phys-Ed requirement. He’d selected Life Saving. There were tougher places in July to plow through a three hour credit than the swimming pool. The class was indoors, rigorous, and had only eleven enrollees. They swam eight Olympic laps to begin each class, practiced thirty minutes of open water combat techniques, bare-handed (and bare-assed), and finally four lengths freestyle before exiting the pool.

The Natatorium was a five minute walk from the Library. Cool and relaxed from his Life Guard class, Danny arrived at his oasis once or twice a week, a book in hand. The Library was cooled by fans. Marble floors and walls served students in Kalamazoo as they did the Caesars and Plato. He flopped into his red leather chair in front of a big oscillating fan, and continued his education. One day, reading Pygmalion, Danny laughed out loud and people scowled. Although he did occasionally reference Mad Magazine, that day he was laughing at the outrageous stage directions of George Bernard Shaw.

August came. Danny took home his books and bits of knowledge not taught in the curriculum. His Red Cross Life-Saving patch (one of only two awarded) would go into a drawer. His mitt and spikes would be stored away, never to see action again until it was time to teach his own son the pain and pleasures of playing shortstop. The fall semester would quickly become 1955, and the race would be on.

* * *

A LIFETIME COULD BE a half century or it may be a moment immeasurable by an ordinary wall clock. Once you’ve lived it, and allow yourself to remember its narrative, its chapters are always “now.”

More than fifty years later Daniel, now a grandfather and a veteran of many skirmishes, still fit and sound, frequently visits a campus near his home in North Texas. He reads books in the shady quiet of the prairie heat and sometimes settles in at the Library to write and edit his own manuscripts.

One spring day, jogging through, he passes the Library. He stops. Walks back to the new sign. It reads, “Learning Center.” Vaguely uneasy, Daniel moves on. “I could have sworn that was once a Library.”

Onward.

ltaylor_signature

LETsBlog

Once There Was a Library ©2015

Part One: A boy among men by L.E. Taylor

THE FIRST GLIMPSE Danny got of Western Michigan College was through the rolled down window of a yellow taxi he’d hired at the ancient stone railroad depot (ca.1864). The cabbie had immediately launched into a monologue about the loose ways and easy virtue of coeds. The lout knew all about it, he snortled – wild parties, washtubs of iced gin and rum and fruit juice, and…

Danny tuned out a creepy porn narrative, and concentrated on the quaint parks and churches of downtown Kalamazoo. The kid spoke only once, “How long before we get to the campus?”

In a few minutes, the cab turned off Oakland Avenue and, in second gear, began to climb a winding tree lined lane. At the top of the hill they passed between a brief succession of stately ivy clad halls. At the end of the short cul-de-sac the cabbie slowed and made a U-turn in front of a massive Greek-revival edifice. “That there’s the lye-barry,” he muttered.

The cab slowed to a halt before a bland two story structure designated Health Services Building. Danny paid the fellow and got out. He took a breath and strode up the walk, callow and empty-handed, to his fate.

Danny had been an indifferent high school student. His interests were narrowed to but a few. He was a natural draftsman and self-taught painter, so a major in art was appealing. A couple of years ago, at fifteen, the lad had discovered literature and history; then, apace, some aptitude for prose writing was kindled. Finally, he loved baseball: the meticulous crafting of skills the game demanded, the romance of its history, and the democracy of its solitary challenge on the field, a member of a team but alone.

Academic strengths suitable to each of the lad’s appetites were ascendant at this modest college tucked away in this modest town a long morning train ride from any big city. And Danny very nearly didn’t make it. Only a last minute call from his high school principal snagged him one chance – a longshot. Travel to the campus, now, in mid-August and endure a daylong college entrance exam. Whatever this place would proffer, it would certainly pose an antidote to a mind going fallow in the intellectual torpor of late adolescence.

His father had dropped him at the curb in front of Michigan Central Terminal twenty minutes before departure of the westbound ‘Chicago Limited’. He fidgeted and worried all the way past the whistle stops –

Ypsilanti… Ann Arbor… Battle Creek. The necktie was tight on this warm morning, and the polished shoes mocked him for the pretense they implied.

At a desk in the Health Services lobby, a dour matron searched her log and checked off Danny’s name. She said follow me.

A 24-page College Aptitude exam in one hand and a bouquet of sharpened yellow pencils in the other, Danny entered the bare testing room. A half-wall of hardwood paneling ended waist high and was continued in clear glass from ledge to ceiling. An ominous clock was the only accoutrement on the blank back wall. The woman closed the windowed door with a gentle, though decisive, click. (Had she locked it or was that his imagination?)

He would have three hours to finish. The woman said she would be back in two.

Danny sat at the oaken table on a hard slatted straight-back chair. He opened to Page One and dove in. He found himself calmly focused, energized, and viscerally engaged in the challenge of this self-audit. He was oddly at peace with the moment. Like stepping into a batter’s box to lead off a new game against a big, strong pitcher he’d never faced before. Danny didn’t know anything about testosterone, but he recognized that thrill he’d known on the playing field and in peril on the city streets and playgrounds. It concentrated his mind.

He arrived at page three of the booklet in only a few minutes (a single into left field). Hmm, he thought, this test isn’t so bad. He knew more than he knew.

Nearly half way through the booklet, Danny glanced up at the wall clock. Only fifty-five minutes had passed. He removed his jacket and loosened the knit tie. When the matron returned at the end of hour number two, Danny said he was almost done. She peered doubtfully over rimless spectacles and replied, “Check all your answers twice and come down to my desk.” The door was not locked.

* * *

THE COLLEGE HAD two campuses. This one, charmingly nestled at the top of a forested hill was the “Old Campus.” After The War many colleges doubled in size to handle returning veterans. The New Campus was a complex of male and female dormitories, multi-story classroom and administrative facilities, a tall glass-faced music building, and a serene non-sectarian chapel. The architecture was utilitarian, brick and glass boxes in the 1950’s style. There had been no time yet for new trees to rival those of the Old Campus.

While authorities scrutinized Danny’s test booklet in some Health Services sanctum, he set off to investigate both campuses. Walking was in his Scots Irish genes so the trudge downhill and across a great field to the New Campus one mile distant was a pleasure. On the lower level of the Administration Building, he discovered the College Book Store. Tee shirts, book binders, caps, all with the big gold “W”, shouted out to him: college! Oh Lord, no, he breathed; do I really want this? Am I up to it? For four years? Why?

In the course of the next ten months, his answers found him. The first answers were all yes. But, why? Because here was the fresh exciting new world he’d hungered for without knowing it.

Danny passed the entrance exam with a high score and arrived in September of 1953 with his tuition check for $190.00, a suitcase of sweaters and khaki pants, and his baseball glove and spikes.

The fall semester was packed with literature, composition, and history. Instruction by good teachers was inspired and inspiring. Christmas break was spent at home writing term papers, studying for mid-term exams, and reading from the extra-credit lists.

Back on campus for the second semester, Danny found a quiet winter’s refuge in that massive antique Library on the Old Campus. He discovered a couple of overstuffed maroon leather chairs placed before a fireless hearth in the building’s great hall. At least one chair was always unoccupied. He read… snoozed… read some more. And he thought.

Veterans of two wars were everywhere among the student body. Older than Danny by up to a decade, they projected a confident worldliness. They showed an appreciation for studies that came with having seen violent death and the coarse sinfulness of men – and having escaped the grasp of at least one of these. They smoked cigarettes and drank beer off campus. And they studied earnestly.

To pal around with guys who’d been dogfaces under fire was an unexpected gift. He’d known a few vets during summer work back home, but those louts were more like the cab driver from the train station last August. These fellows were more like Danny, eager to learn, and ready to frisk like colts, but they were men. They had an experienced perspective that showed. Danny enjoyed them and soaked it up.

Most veterans were enrolled in pre-professional studies – med, biz, education. Still in their twenties, they’d escaped with their lives, but at the cost of their youth. The older survivors had come home to jobs and pre-war careers left hanging. Some of these older freshmen were married. That showed, too.

One day Danny went downtown and bought a pipe and a pouch of tobacco. A couple of cold nights later, he strolled up to the Old Campus. In the shadows next to the Library, he packed the fat bole of his new toy, clamped down on the stem, and struck a match. Puff, puff, inhale. Cough, puff. A breath of frigid wind caught the sweet fruity smoke, played with it, and blew it back into Danny’s face. Delicious. Danny walked the Old Campus sidewalks in thought, puffing robustly and feeling manly. The dizziness crept in slowly and unexpected; in the shrubs on the majestic old library’s dark side, his dinner came up. Also unexpected.

Two semesters of Elementary Design, Art History, World History, Rhetoric, Composition, Comparative Arts, and ROTC drills jostled for a new home in his young brain. Danny approached the end of the school year changed. Though his worldview was still far from seasoned, his sensibilities had been seduced. He put away his mitt and spikes carefully. And his pipe. The idea of a long summer of idleness or grunt-work seemed unthinkable.

He looked over the academic requirements for the coming sophomore year and decided a six week stint in summer session would be a smart move. And maybe fun.

Little did he know.

Onward.

ltaylor_signature

LETsBlog