How a Library Helped Save Me
Albuquerque, New Mexico
A newly-discovered portrait of the famous WWII journalist Ernie Pyle is his last: a photograph taken just moments after his death. The body that housed all those words lies still and immortalized in black and white.
Ernie Pyle housed other words in a very literal way – words that meant survival to me, long after he was gunned down by a Japanese machine gun on a Pacific Island in 1945.
When I moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico as a ten-year-old girl in 1962, I devoured the written word. From the time I was a toddler I had wondered at the magic of black marks on white paper and determined I would solve those mysteries; and once I learned to read I was voracious. Previously living in the raw-boned boomtown of Farmington New Mexico, I never went to a library. One Christmas my mother gave me six cheaply-bound books: Alice in Wonderland, The Five Little Peppers, Black Beauty, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Little Women, and Treasure Island. I read each of them seven times.
But once we moved to Albuquerque I discovered to my delight that there was a library just ten blocks away, down the Chinese-elm-lined street of Girard Avenue. I discovered the Olive Book of Fairy Tales (and the Red, and the Blue, and the Yellow, and the Brown…) I delighted in every Oz book Frank Baum ever wrote. I found a whole collection of books about American Indians, and read every one in the little library, even the adult and scholarly ones. (I once even read a book called the Chisel-Tooth Tribe, thinking that the author would stop talking about beavers and other mammals and get around to talking about Indians.) Then I discovered the books about ancient Egypt, and I adopted another culture.
The walls of wonder in that library were a cosmography for my young mind.
Every few days I would bicycle furiously down the street with my wire basketful of books secured with a belt. On the way home, I would often stop pedaling altogether as the strapped-down open book on top snagged my attention. I would scramble off the bicycle just before it toppled. The books and I would sit under a stranger’s tree until I finished a chapter, and I would pedal home.
I didn’t want to return there, to where I lived. It was a place of fits of rage, of crazed threats and screams in the night. It was a place where the emotions of adults ambushed children. I didn’t have the language to express it then. Now I would speak of mental illness, of schizophrenia.
The only refuge was high in the weeping willow tree, or hiding on the cool flagstone beneath the lilac bush. The only insulation was the world of books.
I survived that world, outlasted it, really. I went away from it to college, deliberately forged my own sturdy and loving family.
I write my own books now. My sixteenth book was just published. I have written books of faith, to help other women have hope. I have written a book about a child who has bad dreams and is helped by a multi-colored quilt and dreams of escape to wondrous worlds. One of my newest books is an adventure: a story of quests for truth, of golden treasures, of mysteries.
I go back to that little library sometimes. What once seemed a kaleidoscope of ideas I now see as a tiny residence, where books are even in the bathtub. It is the modest “little white house and picket fence” that Ernie Pyle often wrote about, the one he and his wife built, now a public library in Albuquerque. His dog Cheetah’s grave is still there. Ernie built that very picket fence. It is a library that demands also to be seen still as a home.
I look at the photograph, the serenity of Ernie Pyle’s face in death.
I thank him for his home, the safe haven for my young mind.