The dog days of summer weighed heavily on my skinny shoulders when I was a kid. School wouldn’t start until after Labor Day, but the end of our vacation was in sight, and I always dreaded the first day of classes.
I loved being in the country with my grandparents, but for some reason mom and dad wanted me close by, so I spent more time in old East Dallas than I wanted. That took me away from fishing for crawdads with my great-aunt and uncle, or fishing down at the pool with Cousin, or running the fields and pastures with my BB gun.
City life limited my outdoor options. You could only play Monopoly for so many weeks. Other than riding my bike up to a local park to wade in a tiny stream for minnows or glassine crawdads, I had to find other things to do. One of my favorites was the bookmobile.
It was glory on wheels. A rolling library. The huge bus outfitted with shelves full of books arrived on Friday mornings during the summer and parked only a block and a half from our house. Folks were used to seeing me ride up there on my bike with a stack of books resting on the handlebars.
The first few times the bookmobile rolled up that first summer, I was waiting. The only problem with that idea was the lack of shade, so standing in the sun wasn’t much fun. When they finally arrived, the guys had to get out, hook up the umbilical cord for power, then go back inside for a nap or maybe a cup of coffee before they opened the doors.
All the while, I was standing beside the power pole, feeling the sun burn my scalp through the boy’s regular haircut I always wore. Then the moment arrived. One of the two employees opened the door with a whoosh and cold air flowed out like a river and beckoned me inside.
The whole wall on the driver’s side was books that reached up to the curved roof. They were all from the adult fiction section of the library and the guys hand-picked them each week. Two doors front and back took up quite a bit of the passenger side, so the shelves were about half the length and the selections were somewhat limited on that section.
That’s where they shelved biographies, nonfiction, and juvenile fiction. While the driver swiveled his seat behind a small check-in desk to check in books, the other “page” (which is what they called those who shelved books back then), checked books out from a wide desk in the back.
Their faces are gone, but they had a huge impact on my life. They always visited with me for a few minutes while I turned in the books that were due, and I thank those guys for taking the time to talk with a kid who loved books.
The first was when Driver handed me a book with a yellow cover. “Read this.”
“What is it?”
“You can read, right?”
“Of course I can.”
“Then read the title, dummy.” He sounded like the old men up at the store.
“You saw the movie, right?”
“I didn’t cry.”
“Yes, you did. Read this one and then next week I’ll have another of Fred Gipson’s books here for you. It’s called Hound Dog Man.”
Passing me that book changed my life. I absorbed both books, and went on to read the rest of Mr. Gipson’s books after that. One day Driver had another book waiting for me. He passed it over. “You want me to read the title for you?”
“I can read. It says, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash.”
Driver nodded and lit a cigarette. “It’s a boy book. Anyone who was a boy will love this.”
“I still am.”
“You’ll still get a lot out of it.”
I took that book home, and he was right. I loved it and soon read everything Gene Shepherd wrote. You’ve seen a small portion of his work every Christmas, when Ralphie comes on the screen with his Red Ryder BB gun in A Christmas Story.
Once they recommended a book after we talked about a movie that was on TV the night before. I left with a thick tome under my arm, hearing Page chuckling as the door closed behind me. I climbed on my bike and pedaled home, wondering what Driver meant when he said don’t let my mom read the book. The Dirty Dozen wasn’t that bad, but then again, I leaned a new word that impressed my friends.
But the biggest impact came the day I was looking through the adult fiction and came across a title that caught my interest. “Hey, Driver.”
He looked up from opening a fresh pack of Chesterfields. “What?”
“You ever read this?”
He squinted at the title. “Nope. Don’t hunt.”
I opened the cover and read the flap. I sure hunted, and fished, and had about a million old men telling me what to do, so it looked familiar, and interesting. I took it home, along with about a dozen other books, and put it on the small wire shelf on the portable TV stand in my bedroom.
That night, I opened up The Old Man and the Boy, and my world was never the same again. Though Robert Ruark died a few years earlier, he dramatically impacted my life.
So did the bookmobile.