It was a hot summer day in 1950. I was a 7-year-old first grader in a small rural school that had no library. Twice a month, the Sonoma County Public Library Bookmobile visited the school and the children could select and take home a library book. I grew up in an era without TVs, computer games, videos or CD’s. Therefore, a book was a doorway to another world of fantasy, imagination and excitement. We looked forward to a Bookmobile library book, much as today’s child might if he had a free coupon to choose anything in the video store.
We lined up at the bookmobile door in two rows. Squirming, wiggling and chattering children, barely able to contain our excitement until it was our turn to enter the truck by twos. Every few minutes, I moved a few step closer to the door opposite the driver, until it was my turn to enter the truck. I stood in awe, staring at the rows of books lining the walls while the librarian pointed me toward the two shelves dedicated to beginning readers. I had only a couple of minutes to select a book. The County Librarian challenged me with the responsibility of caring for library property, and wrote down my name and the title of my book. She tucked a small card into the back cover, reminding me that I must return the book at the Bookmobile’s next visit. It was mine to enjoy for two whole weeks. I carried my book down the steps of the bookmobile and smiled smugly at the fidgeting children still standing in a double line in the hot summer sun. Their jealous eyes followed me as I carried my book into the shade of a nearby tree and sat down to read.
It was a treasure, sent to me personally by the President of the United States, who owned the Sonoma County Public Library System and personally sent the red/white/blue bookmobiles to rural schools, as symbols of truth, justice and the American Way.
I walked home from school that day, carrying my lunch pail, sweater and my precious library book under my arm. I walked with children who suggested we take a different way home. The chanting of chicken cinched my decision not to challenge the leader as he promised to take us on an adventure. Several blocks from the school, we passed a deep PG&E workman’s hole, loosely covered by boards. Our leader laughed and pranced across the boards and double-dog dared us to follow. I was afraid to walk across the boards, but I could not defy a double-dog dare, could I? The second child crossed the teetering boards successfully. I had no choice but to comply, and follow him across the wobbling boards.
Fighting back tears, I took a deep breath, clutched my lunch pail, sweater and library book tightly to my chest, closed my eyes and took a precarious step onto the boards. As I stumbled forward, the boards wobbled. Flailing out my hands to keep my balance, my precious book tumbled down between the boards into the darkness and surely, into the pits of hell beneath my feet. The three of us crouched down and peered into the hole. My book lay at the bottom, at least100 feet down. I could just barely see the pages flipping back and forth in the gentle breeze. The hole was too deep, and rescue too challenging for our small minds to comprehend.
I began to contemplate the outcome of this catastrophe. The President of the United States had personally commissioned the book into my hands and I had failed him…. miserably. Someone was going to jail.
I felt sure they wouldn’t put a 7 year old in jail, but if not me, then who? Suddenly it became all too clear. They would put Daddy in jail because I was his kid and I had broken the law and somebody had to pay.
With tears coursing down my cheeks, we walked home where I hid in the closet for hours, despite my mother’s pleas to come out. I sat in the darkness, imagining life with my Daddy in jail. Mama would have to go to work. We would be poor and have to wear second hand clothes. Everyone would know it was my fault that Daddy was in jail.
When Daddy came home that evening, he opened the closet, grabbed me by the collar and removed me in about four seconds. “What the heck is going on?” Daddy could always get to the root of the problem in about four seconds. He stood me on my feet, and whacked my bottom.
I crumpled weeping to the floor and told him I had not come straight home from school, and had lost my book down a hole along the way. I didn’t mention the rest of it, the part about him going to jail. He would find out soon enough when the library police came to arrest him.
After dinner, Daddy drove me back to the gigantic, monstrous hole that yawned beneath the boards at least 100 feet deep, the hole that had swallowed my precious book, the hole that was the cause of his impending incarceration, and my everlasting shame. I watched as Daddy leaned over the yawning cavern, reached down with his long arm, (probably about three feet), retrieved the book and handed it to me…..
Things were easier back then, when I was 7 years old. Enormous, life- shattering problems could always be solved with one sweep of Daddy’s big hand, or so it seemed to me, as we drove home in silence, with my Sonoma County Public Library District book clutched tightly in my hands.