I can’t remember now just when I started reading books. In the blue-collar world that I grew up in, books weren’t a familiar sight. My father read the local newspaper, and my mother an occasional True Story magazine. Beyond that, an old used comic book or two might have wandered in past our threshold, and there was always the Sears catalog that was deposited with a loud thunk on our front porch each by paid deliverers. But that was it, until 1960 when the encyclopedia salesman came knocking on our back door.
Some of these guys (and yes, they were all men back then) could be pretty crafty. They knew that, with just a few exceptions, proper Franco-American families rarely opened their front doors to anyone unless it was a very special occasion. The accepted practice was always to use the back door, as that’s how you could be sure that whoever was knocking wasn’t a stranger. In our case, our kitchen window looked right out onto the back porch, which made it easy for us to see a visitor before he or she had even had a chance to knock.
Either this particular salesman was fast or my parents had been distracted and hadn’t seen him pass by the window. But there he was, sitting at our kitchen table giving us his spiel for all he was worth, and my father soaking it all up like a sponge. My poor dear father with his sixth-grade education and his job as a doffer in the mill couldn’t help but be impressed when the salesman asked me which animal carried its babies in a pouch and I automatically and very confidently blurted out “A kangaroo!” I then became, for those few instances and in Daddy’s eyes at least, The Smartest Kid Who Had Ever Lived.
Well, he bought the encyclopedia for a dollar a week, which was, in 1960 and for a man who worked at one of the least-paying jobs in the mill, a large investment. The deal had been made sweeter with the inclusion of a “free” white leather-bound Holy Bible that my mother came to cherish and which I still have to this day. Daddy drew the line, however, at the yearly supplements that would cost more money, and we cheered when the big box arrived to deposit the twelve hot-off-some-foreign-press sweet-smelling volumes of the Wonderland of Knowledge into our lives.
And that was when my reading career began in earnest, as I spent that entire summer reading that encyclopedia. I can’t remember now how far I got, but I seem to remember that I was in the C’s or thereabouts, which might have been the third volume. The only one I am sure of was the last one which I was destined never to add to my list of “Books I Have Read,” and which bore on the spine the acronym “Tie-Zwi Maps.” (The things we remember…)
I’m also no longer sure just when I first visited a public library, but I’m sure it was probably on a school trip. And then there were also the summer reading books, another financial burden for my family; but oh, how I looked forward to the smell of those brand new paperback books each June! Once I finally managed to get my hands on books that bore more than just a few letters on their spines, I was lost in a world not of my own making but of whoever managed to draw me into their seas of words.
I deduced not long into it that maybe I could write stories, too. But it was only after a few more detours and “roads not taken” that I would finally come to the realization that “hey, I can do this!”
So I did, and I still do, and I’m not done yet, not even close!