A few weeks ago the 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 Dillsburg Area Library to close while cleanup was begun.

It was like learning that an old friend had fallen seriously ill.

I did not spend a lot of time at the Dillsburg Library. But there is something, for those who love them, which makes every library home.

When I was a kid, our community library lived in the old granite former home of some wealthy 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 very best stuff, but constantly, especially through summer vacations. I tore through almost every book 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 have to understand that at the checkout desk at our library was The Bird Lady. I called her that because she was thin, angular, beaky of nose, unpleasant, and the last bastion of morality in the modern world. She always dressed in black. I’m 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 wouldn’t 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 been permitted to check 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 didn’t want to admit to my own mother that I’d wanted to check out ADB right there in front of her, God, and the vulturine librarian. I’d 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 some of his friends that just sort of 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 have to 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. As far as I’m concerned, 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. I think 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 a lot 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.

A library is a lot more than a warehouse stuffed with books and electronic media. Maybe it’s 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.

I rarely ever used the library in Dillsburg when I worked in town. But it was so good knowing it was there. A community without a library is sort of like one of those characters in the classic horror film “Night of The Living Dead,” moving around but with no real inner life.

I understand the Dillsburg Library has recently reopened, with new carpet, and the damage repaired. I hope to stop by for a visit soon. I hope the people who live in the area do the same. I hope they realize what they have.
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© 2007 Marsh Creek Media,
Gettysburg, Pa.
“Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.
Check out the two “Burger to Go” blogsites:
https://burger2go.wordpress.com/
http://burger2goclassics.wordpress.com/

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Waiting for Batman

May 19, 2008

When Thorton Wilder’s play Our Town debuted in 1938, it was of the first Broadway plays to use hardly any stage scenery, forcing the audience to imagine the world in which the characters lived.

Wilder said, “Our claim, our hope, our despair are in the mind — not in things, not in ‘scenery’ … [a play] needs only five square feet of boarding and a passion to know what life means to us.” (Quote taken from the online version of Writer’s Almanac.”)

Yesterday several of us went to see Iron Man, the latest in a spate of films based on comic book heroes. Most of what I was looking on the screen was generated by a computer. The actors playing the characters stood on marks on the floor in front of a blue screen and (having, presumably, read the script) went through the motions of, oh, fighting giant robots and whatnot.

In effect, we’ve come full circle, transferring the task of imagining from the audience to the actors.

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed the film (Maybe “movie” is a better term. ‘Film’ is probably best used for serious intellectual cinema, pictures with complex story lines, deep emotions, and in-depth dialogues. You know….chick flicks.)

Just kidding. I like serious art films as much as the next guy. OK, maybe not THAT much, but most the time if I’m going to spend the bucks to go to a real theater and put up with all the hassle and expense that entails, it’s because I’m looking for some entertainment and escape. And I like to see the bad guys get stomped instead of elected. And I don’t want to see a lot of hand-wringing. I’m a guy. Blow something up.

On the other hand….

Now that we’ve got this whole computer graphics thing down, can we please stop relying on it so much? We get it: studios can make dinosaurs gallop down a city street and guys in leotards fly through the air. Yay. Now, how about paying attention once again to stories? To writing? To whether your actors can actually act? Stop, please, making the movie about the stunts and the whiz-bang already. Within about a minute of the beginning of Iron Man, it was pretty obvious who the main bad guy was, that he was the trusted advisor who was really a traitor, and at the end of the film there was going to be a battle royal. We knew the hero would triumph against impossible odds. And get the girl. And that the bad guy would lose because his armor was butt-ugly and Iron Man’s armor was just too cool.

Give us more depth, please. Just because we like to see stuff blow up doesn’t mean we’re idiots who can’t follow a plot or empathize with a complex character.

Thank you. Now, I’ll prepare myself for the next Batman movie.

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It was in an email exchange with a friend, a fellow writer, about some crises in her life. We were talking about how such things affect one’s life ever after.

“I don’t break down in the midst” of the crisis, she wrote, “but once the crisis is over….well…it leaves its mark.”

She is right, of course. We are each of us the sum and more of the things that have happened to us. Writers and other artists, perhaps shamelessly, make a living, or at least a habit, of giving guided tours through the galleries of our “marks,” a sometimes ghastly show-and-tell.

Living is sort of all about the marks it leaves. That’s our calligraphy, and what we write about it is our own individual Lascaux cavern. The beasts our ancestors left in soot and earth pigments on the walls of Lascaux and other caverns around the world may have been part of hunting rituals or as acts of admiration, passion, or even expiation for the deaths of the creatures they were meant to represent.

But is not that what we do when we write poems or essays? We scrawl clumsy representations of the beautiful and terrible beasts from our hearts onto the cavern walls for all to see. Every joy and terror leaves its mark, forever lending its own pigments to our ink, and come out, in their own ways, as the horses, bison, mammoths, and so on leapt from the hands our ancestors 15,000 to 17,000 years ago.

Everybody has nightmares slumbering fitfully beside happier memories; that’s the price of the ticket for a journey through a life. There’s on old quip about life that “nobody gets out of here alive.” True enough. But nobody gets out unscathed, either. At the end, we’re all scuffed and weathered, inside and out.

At present, for reasons too complex to explain here, I am spending time reading my own cave walls, poking gingerly at sleeping dragons. Some of the discoveries have been good ones; others have left me shaken and afraid. But it has not been dull. I don’t know how I would deal with that, the very worst fear of all, the voyage, after all this, should have been boring.

What a waste that would have been.

© 2007 Marsh Creek Media,

Gettysburg, Pa.

“Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.

Check out the two “Burger to Go” blogsites:

https://burger2go.wordpress.com/

http://burger2goclassics.wordpress.com/