#15 The Carnegie Library: Den of Iniquity

Stop! Warning! The following blog entry contains material of a sexual nature! Those who continue reading will find tales of the sexual education of a twelve-year-old boy. Evidently, this is way too hot for some of you. My last entry, which included the word “sex” in the title and told of the widespread reading of the novel Peyton Place among the mothers in Parkersburg WV, was too much for some of you. I received shocked! comments and Roger, the keeper of the blog about several early WV history sites, where I had put up a notice of the blog entry, was told it was porn and had to be removed from his site, which he did. I am so proud to have been kicked off the Internet for being Too Hot To Handle. I spoke to Roger, a prince of a man, really, who told me he just figured I had been hacked by a porn site so he took the notice down. Roger knows this is not unusual because he has to deal with these porn hackers all the time, so he was right to take it down. But really, people, anyone who actually read the entry would have found it to be pretty tame stuff.

Not so this next one. So let me repeat, if you are offended by material of any level of a sexual nature, please, click back to a site where you are comfortable. If, on the other hand, you want a laugh or two, venture on, faithful reader, and join me 65 or so years ago in The Carnegie Library: Den of Iniquity!

The Carnegie, as we always called it, (“Mom, I got to go to the Carnegie tonight!”) will forever be remembered as a place of refuge and wonder to me and many of my generation in our town. Wiki tells me that 2,509 libraries were built on grants from Andrew Carnegie, and the one in Parkersburg, West Virginia, was a beauty. It always reminded me of an Egyptian temple, one that might have a giant Sphinx nearby and be manned, (womanned) by slave girls dressed in Egyptian slave-girl garb. The librarians actually wore standard librarian clothing, and they were always nice, especially after they figured out that you were a smart little bugger who was reading way beyond his age level. Once you established these bona fides, they were happy to recommend adult novels and let you take home as many books as you could physically carry.

The library as refuge. There was some unwritten law back then that said if a child wanted/needed/demanded to be driven to the library (it was too far to walk) any available adult had to take them. When we were younger, and my mother didn’t have a car and dad was working out of town, we would take the bus and she would go with us. But this was only during the day, usually on the weekend. When we were older and we had two cars, mom would drive us after dinner, drop us off and pick us up a couple of hours later. During that time we were expected to research whatever topic we were working on, check out pertinent books and any novels that caught our fancy, and work at our papers on the long communal library tables. Of course we did this — we actually did — but there was a lot of off-topic exploration as well.

For me, the Carnegie was a hot-bed of sex.

As I said, the architecture of the building was more King Tut than the usual Roman Empire influence in public buildings. You walked up broad steps and entered the main room where Nefertiti, er, the head librarian, presided behind a circular kiosk surrounded by a high counter. My memory is of always having to hand my slips in by reaching high and sliding the slip toward this looming lady but surely at some point I must have been tall enough to, more or less, conduct my business without the librarian having to loom over the counter to speak to me. But maybe not. There were marble staircases on one side of this front area that led to an upstairs that was mostly used for storage and was off-limits to the general public. We never went up those steps. God knows what sort of library hi-jinx went on up there.

As you circumnavigated the center island and walked to the back of the large room, you came to the area where the books were shelved. It was four stories high beneath giant glass skylights, the floors made of thick, misty opaque glass panels and accessed by a massive wrought iron spiral staircase that projected, Nautilus-like, up through the center of this vast atrium of knowledge.

The standard drill was you went to the card catalogue, (oh, how I could go on about the wonders of the card catalogue, a resource now sadly missing from libraries everywhere) looked up your subject and found books that hopefully pertained, filled out a call slip with the little pencils that had no erasers they provided, the same pencils handed out at miniature golf facilities, turned your slip in at the desk and someone, apprentice librarians, not the Head Librarian, would go and retrieve your books for you. This waiting period was profitably spent perusing the newest popular novels that were shelved around this front room. When you received your books, piled on the counter with your call slip, you hauled them to the table where you set up camp. You then either studied them and took notes, or you leafed through them to find those that would be of the most use to you.

When I was a little older, and after having established myself as a solid, honorable, book-loving child, I was allowed to roam the four story stacks on my own.

One magnificent evening, I don’t remember how old I was – old enough to care – I started up the spiral staircase. This was the only such staircase I had ever seen, and because the steps varied in size, small where they attached to the center pole, wider at the outer edges, it took a certain amount of concentration to climb them. Not a lot, I wasn’t an idiot, but enough that you had to pay attention to where the handrail was, where you were putting your feet, always checking upward to see where you were going. On this glorious night, I looked up and realized I could look straight up the dress of a high school girl who was ten steps or so ahead of me. And I mean all the way up her dress. I almost fell down a couple of flights of stairs.

I was shocked and had to fight the immediate urge to peer back up at the sight . At the same time I was shamed by the fact that I not only could see the young lady’s underwear, but by the overwhelming urge to do so, forever, or until she found her floor and moved off the steps. Is there any sexual imperative greater for a young pubescent male than to see young women in their underwear? Well, seeing them without their underwear, yes, but that slightly frightening possibility was some years in the future.

I went about my usual library business that night, but my time at the Carnegie was changed forever. I was smart enough to understand that I could not spend my hours there skulking up and down the stairs every time I saw a young woman in a dress headed to the upper floors, that I would surely be found out, arrested and taken to jail, or sent to the dreaded Pruntytown. Pruntytown was a correctional facility in West Virginia where they sent kids who had fallen afoul of the law. Every kid’s mother had said at one time or another when you had done something wrong, “Keep that up and you’ll be sent to Pruntytown!” A visit to Google tells me that Pruntytown still exists and is home to 369 minimum and medium custody male inmates. In my day we envisioned the facility to be filled with children who had been sent there by their parents because of intractable criminal behavior such as looking up girls’ skirts and generally not obeying the rules. In my mind it resembled etchings and lithographs I had see in old books about Victorian insane asylums.

But I must admit, if I was just happening to be headed up the staircase and there just happened to be a female ahead of me I would take the opportunity for a quick peek as I was making sure of my progress up those difficult stairs. Sure, I knew I was risking a two-year stretch at Pruntytown and public humiliation, but it was worth it.

The next brick in the shaky edifice of my sexual education was found again up those same library stairs, on the fourth floor. No one ever went to the fourth floor, or hardly anyone. I don’t know why I was up there that first time, probably nothing more than book curiosity, the drive to see every book that was available to me. But it was there, one day, when I was browsing for nothing in particular, when I pulled out a large medical book on forensic medicine. I probably took it down because I didn’t know what the word forensic meant.

It turns out that it meant that this was a book filled with pictures of dead people, victims of accidents and homicide, and by golly some of them didn’t have a stitch of clothing on. Usually these deceased had some visible disease or wound, but more times than you might imagine, these were minor disfigurements that could be easily ignored, what with all the nakedness to take in. It was pretty easy to just pretend that these were normal everyday people, women — I wasn’t interested in the men — who had simply crawled up on a coroner’s slab, naked, to take a nap.

Surely the most influential photograph was that of a woman’s vagina, complete with a thatch of bush, in Bobby Huffman’s parlance, (if you’ve forgotten, see Entry #9, aptly titled Naked Ladies) that totally blotted out Bobby’s best efforts with the Sears catalogue and a piece of tracing paper. The picture was striking in its detail, and I looked at it, astonished, just as I would be astonished the other three or four thousand times I would climb those stairs, take the book down and furtively stare at it on that lonely fourth floor of the Carnegie Library. Thank God no one ever came up there to see what the hell I was doing, for if they had done so I would have been immediately sent to Pruntytown and locked up for the next ten years in the sexual deviant’s wing. The caption stated (this must have been the forensics’ part) that the vagina was that of a woman who was a prostitute and thus an example of the stretching and general looseness that was sure to afflict the body parts of women in that profession. Since I had never seen one in an unstretched condition, I had nothing to base an opinion of this one on, but it looked perfectly fine to me. What the hell did I know? I wish I could say that I was repulsed by this experience, but if I did I would be lying. One thing I’m pretty sure of is that the editors of that book were full of crap when it came down to the whole stretched diagnosis. I think they just wanted to put a dirty picture in their book in the hopes it would increase sales.

I thought of this photograph years later when reading a biography of the great Victorian art historian, John Ruskin. (born, February 8, 1819; died January 20, 1900) I can almost hear you readers out there sitting up straight and leaning close to these pages, puzzled expressions on your faces, wondering where in hell I’m going with this comparison.

At the age of 30 Ruskin married a childhood friend, Effie Grey. Some years later they divorced and had the marriage annulled. The marriage was unconsummated and Ruskin was accused of “incurable impotency,” by his wife, which he denied. Effie Grey gave this explanation for their non-consummation. These were her words. “… that he had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening 10th April [1848].” What this means is on his wedding night, Ruskin walked into his bedchamber, took one look at his naked wife and almost fainted.

Up to this point, Ruskin’s experience of naked women came only from what he had seen in classical sculpture and painting, in which women were represented with no pubic hair. Remember, he was one of the world’s greatest experts in classical art. When he saw Effie’s pubic region with her natural hair, he was repulsed. And never wanted to have anything to do with her again. Some people dispute this explanation, but most experts agree this is probably what happened. Especially since Effie said so herself. When you take into account that some years later Ruskin fell in love with a ten-year-old girl, it makes even more sense. Fortunately, he didn’t marry the ten-year-old.

My memory, when I read this about Ruskin, flew back to that particular graphic photograph in the medical book, and I thought if Ruskin had ever seen such a thing he would have immediately been struck blind and rendered insane. As for me, I can detect absolutely no overt effect on my psyche, then, over the years, or now. But I still remember it, don’t I?

After this momentous discovery in the library, my sexual education lagged for a number of years until the summer I joined the band. A carnival had come to town, not one of the small ones in the city park, but a big rip-roaring carnival with a giant (to me) Ferris wheel, many scary, vomit-inducing rides, a freak show and lastly, a girly show. The carnival was there from Monday through Saturday and since it was in a large field not far from my house we walked over there a number of times during that week. After taking in the usual sights – the freak show had a bodiless, lady’s head on a table that could carry on a conversation with her viewers, and a bunch of sad animals – a two-headed snake, a two-faced kitten — that were housed in cages that would get them convicted on cruelty to animals charges today. My friends and I would walk by the entrance of the girly show and were told that we were too young to go in. Laughter and loud cheers came from this infamous tent, and strip tease music blared. We knew if we could just get inside we would finally get to see that holy grail, a real, live, naked woman.

On the last night of the show, word was passed around that the girly show would hold one more performance, and the girls would be stripping down to absolutely nothing. But the biggest news was that the guy who sold the tickets at the entrance was no longer concerned about the police busting the operation for allowing minors in. After the last show they would take down the tents and be out of town before the cops could round anyone up. All he wanted was our fifty cents. And he got it.

The tent was pretty full, all men, and it was clear that we were going to have to squirm our way to the front if we were going to be able to see anything at all. I was with my friend Rusty, and we accomplished this maneuver without much trouble. No one behind me was worried about being able to see over me, (Rusty wasn’t much taller than me) so they let us through to the crowd to the edge of the stage.

The last show of the night turned out featured one lone dancer. Maybe she had drawn the short straw and been sent out for this one last performance while the other ladies packed up and prepared to move on.

I don’t remember what the music was, but the dancer shimmied out onto the stage, four feet off the ground, and began dancing around. She wasn’t wearing much, just a bikini bottom, so there wasn’t much tease in the strip. Really, is there any man who really enjoys the long, slow, strip act of a “legendary” performer like Blaze Star? No. Men want to see naked women, and the crowd I was standing with was perfectly happy to forgo the foreplay of a tease.

The lady took off her bikini bottom, waved it overhead and the crowd cheered; this is what they had paid fifty cents to see. She paraded around the stage, bent over, pushed and pulled at her flesh (in a fetching manner) and gave everyone a good show. She was attractive, in a naked sort of way, blond, and shaved, which was a plus in my book. I was happy to see the goods when they weren’t shrouded the way they were in Bobby’s tracings and the photo in the book at the Carnegie library.

As she pranced around, she suddenly seemed to notice Rusty and me at the edge of the stage, leering up at her. I can only imagine what she thought. From up there, I probably appeared around ten years old, and Rusty didn’t look that much older. So she saw us, and crouched down about a foot from my face. It was a revelation, in all senses of the word, to me, which I think she could clearly see. Then she swiveled toward Rusty, who was leaning in close with a maniacal grin. Suddenly, she grabbed his glasses off his astonished face, rubbed them on her lower parts and plopped them back on his nose. The crowd went wild.

I was worried that Rusty might find this somehow, what? Barbaric? Crude? That he was being made fun of? Was he angry?


He had the biggest cat-that-ate-the-canary-grin on his face that I had ever seen. The lady stood up, gave a quick bow, and trotted off the stage. The show was over.

As we were filing out of the tent, Rusty turned to me, peering out from his smeary lenses, and said, awe and wonder coloring his words,

“I’m never going to clean my glasses again.”

#14 Reading, Sex, and Hidden Books

One day I was in the band room, in my seat, waiting for practice to start. The band room was a great place, though we didn’t know it at the time. Where else in high school was a specific area set aside for a special group that was off limits to the rest of the students but where you could hang out with your friends without any supervision. Frank didn’t seem to be around much and when he was he sat in his office and worked on papers. Sure, every once in awhile you had to actually practice, but far more time was spent goofing around. One favorite trick, in the winter, was to take a leak on the long radiator in the side room, which would then flood the entire area with a tremendous ammonia stink. Funny. At least we thought so.

I must have been in my seat early as there were only a few other guys there, fooling around with their instruments. I was reading. My mother had taught me one of the foundation rules in my life, a rule my sister and I have passed along to our children:

Always have a book.

Recently, My sister, age 73, was stricken with some sort of sudden illness and ended up in the hospital. He daughter, Emma, my niece, called her and said she was coming to the hospital to sit with her while the doctors tried to figure out what was going on. My sister said to her, “Do you have your book?”

We always have our book.

I had hardly ever seen my mother, when she was sitting down, without a book in her hands. She was the most constant reader I had ever known and have ever known to this day. Failing sight in her nineties killed reading for her, and from that time on, life, on an elemental level, was over for her as well. Reading, for my mother, my sister and for me, was what we did. Always. Even when watching television, my mother had a book in her hand.

Back in the band room. I was reading a Ray Bradbury book of short stories, Golden Apples of the Sun. Science fiction. I was a little embarrassed because it was Science Fiction, but I loved the genre. My mother and I would hand science fiction books back and forth to each other whenever we finished one. She loved them as much as I did. My mother often told the story of her taking me to the first movie I ever saw when I was six years old. We stood in a long line of parents and kids. We got our tickets and walked into the plush lobby, or at least it was plush to me. The vast pack of children all pushed to the left, fighting to get through the doors of Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland. My mother and I, the only ones to do so, peeled off to the right into the dark theater to see The Day the Earth Stood Still, an excellent movie about an alien flying saucer coming to earth. Was this the start of my love of science fiction? Perhaps. I can only say, Klaatu, barada, nikto. And if you don’t know what that means, get the film from Netflix and watch it.

I was reading my Ray Bradbury in the band room. A guy a couple of rows back, one of the clarinet players, an older kid, a junior or senior, leaned over and said to me, “That’s a good book. You ever read his other stuff?” I was slightly shocked; first of all, one of the older guys, one of the leaders, had actually spoken to me as an equal, and secondly, he thought what I was reading was not stupid, and in fact it was good. We had a short conversation, and he recommended I read Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clark as well. By then the room had filled and the noise of everyone tuning up and goofing around made it impossible to talk. I put my book away and felt satisfied that I wasn’t the dope I thought I might be, at least in my choice of reading material. I went on to read everything that Bradbury had written, and all of Heinlein and Clark as well. And scores of other great science fiction authors as well. My mom, as I have said, and I passed them back and forth, and she enjoyed all of them and only gave up on science fiction many years later when the genre changed and cyberpunk became the vision and William Gibson moved it into areas that weren’t as optimistic as the 50s, 60s, and 70s.

Reading saved my mother from the ravages of poverty — intellectual and spiritual as well as economic — of West Virginia. I don’t believe she ever went hungry as a child, but she moved a lot and was handed back and forth between her parents. Her mother, Emma, was a sweet little old lady to me, but she was tough and unrelenting when she was younger. I have written about her in earlier pages of this memoire. Mom could remember being able to read from the time she remembered anything. She read whatever books the neighbors back in the hills possessed. There were few books in her own home, and little money to pay for them. She read voraciously in school.

When she was in the second grade, they lived in the country outside of Salem, West Virginia. Mom heard there was a school there, Salem College, that had an enormous library with thousands of books, so she set out one day without telling anyone, determined to borrow some books. This was a painfully shy child, but her reading obsession overcame her shyness and gave her courage. She walked out of the hills on dirt roads and somehow made it into Salem and was directed to the school and the library. Who knows what the librarians thought about the little girl in threadbare clothing asking if she could please come in and pick out some books, but they sent her away. It sounds like a story out of Dickens, but she had no shoes, and by the time she made it back home her bare feet were raw and bloody. But she had at least seen the library and knew books existed in huge numbers and that someday she was going to have access to them.

When I was sick with scarlet fever, I must have been around ten years old. I was confined to bed and not even allowed to go downstairs to eat dinner. I had read all my Hardy Boys books at least twice and was getting desperate. My mother – understanding I was going through book withdrawal – went into the attic and came down with the first book in the Tarzan of the Apes series. It was a hardback — paperbacks were still fairly new. I remember the look and feel of it clearly, bound in red in a way that tells me now that it must have been a library book. When I finished the first one – read in a day or two – she revealed that she had the entire series, 24 books, stashed in the eaves in the attic. Where had they come from, how had she acquired them and why had she never told me they were there? She never said, and I never thought to ask. But it was clear that she had read all of them and loved them. From that moment on, I didn’t care that I was sick. By then the disease had mostly run its course, and I was just tired, but I was strong enough to hold up my Tarzan book, and that was all that mattered.

During another sickness, mumps, or maybe when I had pneumonia (I know it sounds like I was a feeble child, but back then big diseases were more common) she went upstairs and came down with another book. I heard her in the hallway outside my room talking with my Aunt Betty, and she was saying, “Should I give it to him? Do you think he’s old enough for it?” She came in and handed me a book: She, by H. Rider Haggard, bound in the same red cloth as the Tarzan books. Had my mother stolen all these books from a library? She, the book, not my mom, was considered mildly scandalous, written in 1866, and, as Wikipedia tells me, is one of the biggest selling books of all time with 86 million copies floating around. It’s a story of a lost civilization in the heart of darkest Africa. There is a primitive tribe, led by Ayesha, a white, warrior woman known as She. I devoured it, but then I devoured almost every book I read. I don’t remember any particular sex scenes – I’m sure there was nothing overt – but the entire book was soaked in a kind of sweaty, off-page sexuality that was definitely disturbing to a young male reader. Me. Disturbing in a good way.

Several years after this, I found my mother’s copy of Peyton Place, a legitimately dirty novel written by Grace Metalious, a book so steamy that the words Peyton Place have established themselves in the vernacular as a town where sex runs rampant among the inhabitants. This was one book that my mom didn’t pass along to me to read. Where had she hidden it?

In our dining room there was a tall cabinet that held some knick-knacks that had sentimental value for my mother. Among them was a bud vase I bought for her at Tiffany’s when I was in New York City with the band for a competition that began this… whatever it is… memoir, remembrance.

I would have known about Tiffany’s because the Truman Capote book, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a novella with a couple of other short stories, had come out in 1958. I remember the book, a paperback, with a picture of Capote on the back, impossibly young, fair, fey, reclining on a couch. I read it because my sister had a copy; she was always two or three years ahead of my mother and me in our reading. For her, the picture of Capote promised a life beyond West Virginia. I don’t remember what the book meant to me, other than there was life elsewhere. New York, in particular. My sister eventually made it to New York and lived in the city and its environs for many years.

When we were in New York for the band competition, we had some free time to ourselves and could go anywhere we wanted. I found myself on Fifth Avenue standing in front of Tiffany’s. I wanted to buy something for my mother. I had already purchased a small model of the empire State building for my grandma. She treasured that cheap trinket and kept it in a place of honor in her house. She and I would have conversations about it, the Empire State building, and I would try to explain how big it was. I’m pretty sure she never really understood.

I knew I had to do better than a tourist souvenir for my mother. I went into Tiffany’s. I must have looked like real rube to the clerks, but I don’t remember anyone being rude to me.

I walked around the first floor, gawking at the jewelry in the cases. The store was smaller than I had imagined. Of course everything was wildly expensive. Finally I found a case on a wall that held cut-glass vases and figurines. There was a bud vase, simple, six inches tall, with a single, elegant bubble in the base. How much did it cost? I remember fifty dollars, which meant pretty much every cent I had, all the money that was supposed to keep me alive the entire time I was in New York. I bought it out of stupidity and pride, a combination that has not been particularly kind to me over the years. I took it home and gave it to my mother. She loved it and kept it in the tall, glass-fronted cabinet in our dining room. I think my niece has it now.

Which was where I found her copy of Peyton Place.

I’ve written before about how the cabinet had a bottom area where my father stored his liquor supplies, such as they were. In those days that meant a dusty (they were all dusty) bottle of Manischewitz wine (I’ve mentioned the medicinal value of the Manischewitz before) a bottle of Rock and Rye, which you can still buy today and a couple of fifths of bourbon in commemorative bottles that no one ever opened and drank. Oh yeah, and a bottle of Cutty Sark scotch that they actually drank on occasion.

Then one year the liquors were taken out and replaced by one of their greatest Christmas present fails ever: the World Book Encyclopedia.

I’ve said in our neighborhood there were Chevy people and Ford people, and Sears people and Monkey Wards people. I would like to say there were World Book Encyclopedia people and Encyclopedia Britannica people, but there weren’t. There were World Book people, which was the cheap version, and the other people who had no encyclopedia at all.

We opened our gifts on Christmas morning, as opposed to some rich people who opened theirs on Christmas Eve. We’d receive an assortment of stuff like underwear, pajamas, maybe a shirt and then one “big” present. One year, it was announced that my sister Sandy and I would share the big present, which was, Ta-Da! our very own edition of the World Book Encyclopedia. You can imagine how thrilled we were with that, though I’m sure my sister and I — or at least me, she was always a far better person than I was — tried to look as if this was anything but the Worst Christmas Present Ever. Though we did come to rely on the set over the years for our various papers both in high school and junior high. Remember, kids, there was no Internet in those days and we had to turn actual pages of books to steal our essay information.

Mom hid her copy of Peyton Place on top of the encyclopedia. She didn’t even bother stashing it behind the books, knowing that this, the encyclopedia, was the last place we were going to voluntarily go. By then when we needed to do research for school, we would head off to the Carnegie Library. A trip to the Carnegie meant you could wander through the entire library and take out all the novels that you wanted. And you were on your own, dropped off and free until you called to be picked up and taken home.

So there, on top of the encyclopedia, was the dirtiest book the general reader in the 1950s had access to. For many months, when left home alone, I’d take out Peyton Place and read, searching for the sex parts. And there were plenty of them. This was a time when pretty much anyone in the United States would recognize various quotes from Peyton Place, and catchphrases like “Is it up, Rod?” could bring on gales of laughter.

Hot stuff. Now pretty much long forgotten.

Coming up next. More hot stuff: I learn about sex from the Carnegie Library.