childhood, Culture, Education

The Escape Hatch

As kids we found it was smart to have a safe spot to head to whenever it got a little too hot or too crowded around the house. The public library in Delhi was our escape hatch. This tidy little building with the gabled front porch and rounded windows was the perfect destination. At least in the eyes and minds of our parents. And that worked for us.

Our escape hatch: the library.

The library was in the center of town, nestled beside the fire house, just off Main at Church Street. You could reach it from the farthest reaches of our suburbs in less than five minutes by bike. If you lived anywhere near the school, it was a two, or three-minute walk, and for many of us, we did that by skirting down a path between Quance’s house and Hills’ backyard.

Because of its integrity as a public educational institution, our folks could only nod as we pulled on a jacket at night, and headed out the door, “off to the library”. In reality, those sorties rarely followed the flight plan. Out for a romp? Library. Soap a few windows at Halloween? Library. Need a smoke? Roam the streets? Meet some friends? Hit Chainway? Shoot some pool? Make it to the Dairy Bar? Library-Libray-Library.

We had a willing if unintended accomplice. Mrs. Roberston was the librarian, and on any evening, from 4-9pm she was seated at her desk at the back of this small repository of well-thumbed books, magazines and periodicals. As we strode up the concrete steps, through the door, and into the single room, we would see her studiously sorting through library cards, opening and closing books, stamping dates on cards and filing. All the time she continued a quietly confident narrative with the borrower in front of her. “There you are. I have your number, and we’ll see that book back here in two weeks, all right Philip?”

The card system was possibly our first introduction to institutional control. At some time in our early consciousness, our parents had escorted us into the library, and we were registered with a subscriber number. That was a huge advance forward for many of us who up until then only had our name as an identity. But Mrs. Robertson had carefully recorded all of our details onto a card: address and phone number, to which she assigned each of us with a number. The card went into one of her many wooden boxes. Who knows what that meant to us?

But we could pull a book off a shelf–there was a limit of two–and presenting that to her, she would open to the front pages where an envelope concealed another card. That was entitled with the book’s name. She extracted this 3×5 card, and with the dexterity of telepathist, would quickly, magically recall and inscribe our number onto the card, and rubber stamp it with a date. The little stamper was geared to change by month, date and year. She placed the card into another wooden box. That box was partitioned by little dividers with metal clips segregating groups of cards by date. While the rubber stamp was still wet in her hand, she then stamped a lined slip of paper stuck on the envelope in the book with the same date. Handing the book back to us, she reminded us it was due on the date.

Failure to meet that due date would incur a fine of two cents a day. There was never a time that we visited the library where Mrs. Robertson wasn’t collecting fines. The revenues would clatter into a cash box, and with a quiet, but sternly enunciated warning, she would exhort the tardy miscreant to be more punctual in the future.

For all of the protocols of checking out books, the library itself was a warm, welcoming place. It was a one-room establishment, not larger than most rural schools in size, and was shelved on three sides, with two long oaken tables in the center for study and display. Heavy oak chairs lined the tables. Mrs. Robertson regularly groomed the shelves, straightening books, sequencing by the extraordinary Dewey decimals.

The library was her treasure. The shelves were packed with hard covers, propped up with metal supports. Running her fingers across their spines, each labeled with a number, she could retrieve a subject in seconds. The room was her vault and it whispered volumes while a faint scent of glue and perfume floated in the air. She demanded quiet. She respected the privacy of those who sat at study tables, but would also encourage young readers to try out a title. She was genuinely interested in seeing us pore over these books.

My favourites: Tom Swift, woodcraft, indian lore, and biographies. I alternately scoured the bottoms of oceans and soared through ionospheric clouds in wildly imagined vehicles with Swift. Closer to earth I learned how to build traps and snares, skin beavers and build bows, arrows, and tomahawks with Ben Johnson. I was inspired by Churchill and Eisenhower, all thanks to Mrs. Robertson’s direction. She was “Ginger” to her friends, named for the colour of her wavy hair. Not an imposing figure physically, she had a wonderful command of english, delivered with a brogue of Irish. When she spoke, we listened, and with respect.

I point out the ironclad system that our Mrs. Robertson managed, because it added to the credentials of our purported evening’s activities. How could anything go wrong if we were at the library?

Delhi kids were essentially masters of their small universe. There were no particular boundaries, no warnings about strangers, no admonishments about distant expeditions, no guard rails other than daylight, school hours and meal times. As a result, we were habitually off to the woods, to the dam, to Quances Mill, or in town, roaming the streets and alleys, window shopping and dropping in to the local barber and pool hall for a quick look-see, maybe get a popsicle or a coke if we had money.

But somewhere during our circuit, there was a definite rendezvous at the library. We got a book, had it stamped, and were on our way home.

Thanks for reading and sharing! I have been able to give back to the library. Norfolk County Public Library now contains and lends out volumes of my latest: Norfolk Chronicles, published 2020.

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8 thoughts on “The Escape Hatch

  1. Allan GROSS says:

    Ah Phil…once again you’ve managed to take me back in time to my own Brooklyn library trips. Eight city blocks walking past and near concrete playgrounds, old fashioned bakeries with their unique aromas and deli’s where they scooped out butter from a large vat. My library trips were at least weekly and focused on Grimes Fairy Tales and Indian lore (as you put it). As I remember I sadly report that my grandkids (now grown) had no idea who Rapunzel was. Thanks for stirring up some happy memories during these trying times. Best regards to Jane. Allan Gross

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  2. Mark Gaier says:

    Happy New Year Phil, & Jane!

    Enjoyed this edition. I can just picture the roving gangs of Delhi. BTW, what’s Chainway?

    Take care.

    Mark

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  3. Perfect entry for Norfolk Chronicles, Volume 2, Phil! The earliest library I remember is the bookmobile ensconced in the parking lot of Johnny Appleseed Shopping Center, on Rt. 42 in Mansfield, Ohio. Mom helped me check out classics like “The Mouse and the Motorcycle” and “Ben (Franklin) and Me.” Don’t see many bookmobiles any more.

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    • Hey Peter! Actually just saw a bookmobile this morning. It’s all about budgets. I regret I never read FWDixon and Hardy Boys until our own boys were adults. Just read my first Nancy Drew a month ago. That’s COVID for ya! Thanks for writing!

      Liked by 2 people

      • Ah yes, the Hardy Boys. I still have two of my old books, and remember getting the first on my 8th birthday, July 4, 1966 (Hunting for Hidden Gold). I was still a bit young, but by my teen years I’d read maybe a half dozen. Boys’ Life magazine was another favorite.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Hey Peter! Actually just saw a bookmobile this morning. It’s all about budgets. I regret I never read FWDixon and Hardy Boys until our own boys were adults. Just read my first Nancy Drew a month ago. That’s COVID for ya! Thanks for writing!

    Liked by 1 person

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