#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.