Art Brock, the weatherman at KPHO Channel 5 in Phoenix, Arizona, wrote on his chalk board that the high temperature would be 105 degrees that day. This was long before pretty girls in short dresses and computer-generated graphics but Art was usually right, then again, when the temperature was on the plus side of 100 degrees, it all felt the same to me. It was incredibly hot.
For a dirt-poor kid like me whose father hauled the family to this scorching spot in the desert from Flint, Michigan a year earlier, then promptly deserted them, the heat was unbearable. My mom, now a single mother, worked the counter at McCrary’s Drugstore on the corner of Central and McDowell Avenues just trying to keep a roof over the heads and food on the table for the three kids dad left behind. I was the baby in that group, but mom never played favorites.
With nothing to do, since school had let out for the summer the week before, I went to see mom at her work where they had air conditioning (as opposed to the swamp cooler in our apartment) and where I could get a free glass of ice water. Mom would have had to pay for a soda if I wanted one but I knew we were just barely getting along, so I didn’t ask for one.
I drank my fill, told mom that I would see her when she got home, then went back out into the sweltering heat. Even though I spent most of the year attending the 4th grade at Kenilworth School, I did not have any real friends since I was a new kid from “back east”, so I had no clear idea of where to go except home.
That is when I spotted a large building across McDowell Avenue sporting a sign which said, “Phoenix Public Library”. Having never been in a library before, outside of the small one at Kenilworth, I decided to go exploring, besides, I was sure they would have their air conditioners turned on.
When I walked in, I was staggered by the amount of books that I could see. It seemed like every book ever written was housed in this one building. I always loved to read since I first learned how, but books were an unnecessary expense when food and housing were the priority. So I read the front, back, side, tops, and bottoms of cereal boxes and everything written on a milk cartons, too. I read a little in Kenilworth’s library but since I was new to the school, town, and state, I spent most of the past year just trying to get oriented.
Now I was so overwhelmed by the site of so many books, I just stood looking around when a nice, older lady, asked me if I was looking for the Children’s Section. That sounded as good a starting place as anything, so I said yes, and she pointed to a glass wall to my right with a door in it. Stenciled on the door were the words, “Children’s Library, No One Over 18 Years Old Permitted Except Parents”
So, I went in, still with no idea what to do. Walking over to the nearest rack of books, I just started reading the titles. I didn’t know about any of them, but I wanted to read them all. I must have looked lost because a young, very pretty, woman came over to me and asked if she could help me find something. I shyly told her that this was the first time I had been in a library like this, so I didn’t know what to do. She just smiled at this and asked me how old I was. When I told her I was 8-years-old, she took me to a section marked “Children 8-12” and told me to look around. She said I could take any books I wanted, then sit and read it. She admonished me to not re-rack the books and showed me a cart where I could put any of them so she could return the books I read to their proper places. Then she went back to her desk.
All the books that indicated they were for 8-year-old kids looked kind of silly to me, so I moved down the rack only to find the 9-year-old kid’s books seemed just as silly. When I got to the 10-year-old section, I picked up a book titled “Penrod” written by Booth Tarkington. After reading the first few pages, I decided I want to read more about this oddly named kid and his escapades.
I must have sat there reading all day because when the librarian came over to see me, she said the children’s section was closing for the day. It was 4 PM and mom would soon be home, so I had to scoot. I wasn’t quite finished with the book, but the librarian, whose name tag read “Christine”, told me would keep the book at her desk if I wanted to come back and read it the next day. When mom got home that night, I told her where I had been all day and told her that I was going back the next day to finish the book. She was pleased about this, knowing that her youngest child was staying out of trouble would be just across the street from where she worked.
The next day, Christine greeted me with the book in hand and admired the fact that I was reading at an advanced level. When I finished the book and put it on the book cart, she got up and fetched what was apparently the next book in the series. It was called, “Penrod and Sam”, when I finished that the next day, she gave me the last book in the series, called “Penrod Jashber”. I didn’t like that one as much as the first two, but Christine said that it was great that I read the entire trilogy, so I could get to know the characters as real people. I didn’t know what a trilogy was until she told me this.
I asked if she had any more books by this author? She said they did not have any more of his children’s books but she had an idea that I might like a series of books written by a man named Hugh Lofting. The first book was “The Story of Dr. Doolittle”, she said the library had all twelve books in the series if I liked this one. She also said that they were very popular and that if I wanted to read them in order, I should probably put a hold on the next one or check it out to take home but that I would need a library card to do either of these things. Since I’d never heard of a library card, I didn’t know what to do. Christine said that all I needed to get one was to bring in utility bill of some sort with my address on it to show that I lived in town.
The next day, I did better than that, I brought the bill and my mom with me. She was so proud of me getting a library card because I was the first one in the family to have one. She wanted to be there when it was presented to me. I was embarrassed when Christine bragged about my reading skills, but I could tell that mom was proud of that, too.
I spent nearly every day that summer at the library. After I finished all the Dr. Doolittle books, Christine continued to recommend books to me. Most of them are lost in memory today, 60 years later, but my passion for books has not waned one bit.
Now, though, I not only read books, but I write them as well. No matter how many copies I have sold of them, when three of them were added to the shelves of the E.P. Foster Library in my new hometown of Ventura, CA, it was my proudest moment as an author. Hopefully, someday, someone will read one of them and become as passionate about books as I am.
If that happens, I will have come full circle.
Since May of 1976, John Darling has written and has published numerous stories, poems, and articles. His lone play, Stage Directions, has been produced in the United States, Canada, and most recently at the Soho Theater in London, England. He is a multi-genre author whose publications have mostly been short works of fiction and non-fiction, and he has had some poetry published as well. His author website can be viewed here: http://johndarlingauthor.com/ His writing blog can be viewed here: https://johndarling.substack.com/welcome