the heart of so much open land, Amarillo, too,
sprawled in a sort of languid disregard, as though territorial hegemony
might make up for all that loneliness. Route 66 cut through
the center of town as a streamlined reminder of what was out
there to the west, and the trucks roared through town day and
night, slaves to hope and white-line fever, heading for California
or just somewhere else. The steak houses and truck stops at
either end of the city confirmed these great distances, offering
twenty-four-ounce T-bones along with the diesel fuel, and the
neon from the all-night signs must have looked from the sky like
paths of lightbright flashes of pink and green and white as the
town grew sparser, flanked on the highway to the east and west
alike by miles of open country.
Downtown in the 1950s was only a few blocks long, and the two banks, the two movie theaters, the Silver Grill Cafeteria, and the Amarillo Grain Exchange were all within shooting distance of one another. The Mary E. Bivins Memorial Library stood on the outskirts of these necessities, on Tenth and Polk, a generous old Georgian mansion with two sets of stone steps up to its wide verandas. The place had been built as a private home at the turn of the century, and its interiors still held traces of domestic calm the foyer smelled wonderfully of floor wax and printer's ink and no doubt years' worth of muted librarians' cologne. The books were spread luxuriantly over four floors, with the aisles between shelves feeling as wide as city streets. It was here that an entire generation of kids enjoyed a certain benign neglect in the scorching Texas summers: Scores of mothers deposited their children at the library each day to snatch a few hours of freedom in between the swimming pool and the grocery store. The place was safe, it was cool (in the days before air-conditioning, we had only swamp coolers), and, with its gruff librarians posted like marines between Adult Fiction and the checkout desk, it offered a semblance of day-care-cum-self-improvement. In a city five hundred miles from the Texas Gulf Coast and a day's car ride from the mountains of neighboring New Mexico, the town pools and the library were the closest thing a lot of people had to getting away. Our idea of escape was an order of fries at the snack bar of the Western Rivieraa cross-shaped turquoise swimming pool slapped across the prairie like an SOS sign to Godand then the insouciant promise of the library, where you could lose yourself for hours in sanctioned daydreams.
Maybe such repositories of childhood are always graced by memory, each of them archives of that wider world to come. But for me those rooms were my Elysian fields, possessing a grandeur and reach that would blur over time but scarcely diminish after I had taken flight. My mother drove us to the library in an old Ford station wagon, two-tone Palomino Pink, and I can see it still, idling on the street below, as I half staggered down the stone steps with my weekly haul. There was a limit to the number of books, probably ten or twelve, that children were allowed, and the librarian at first admonished me that my appetites were likely to prove grander than my capabilities. But I was bored beyond measure without a book in my hand, and each week I surprised her by showing up for more.
This doggedness had revealed itself early on, an adaptive trait for a would-be toddler who had struggled to walk until well past the age of two. By the time I finally got to my feet, I stayed there a victory that must have assured me, on some profound and preverbal level, that determination was a mighty ally. Certainly it proved useful in the library's summer reading contests, where, one sweltering July, our literary progress was tracked by tiny flags ascending a papier-mâché mountain. Each Friday the young explorers would report to base camp to summarize the books we had finished; once the librarian had determined we were telling the truth, she would move our flags closer to the summit. I remember this textual expedition with pain and pleasure both: the giddy journey into higher altitudes, as I left the pack behind, the weekly anticipation of receiving our sentry's seal of approval. And finally, the misery of coming in second to a boy in my age groupI was probably ninewho had dared to outread me. The realms of athletics and other hand-eye endeavors had found me thus far undistinguished. When she was five, my sister had drawn a horse of such promise that the picture won a local contest; I promptly got out the tracing paper and copied her masterpiece, an act that suggested the visual pursuits be left to her.
Excerpted from A Strong West Wind by Gail Caldwell Copyright © 2006 by Gail Caldwell. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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