Jan L. Hodges
The first town I lived in after our family moved to Oklahoma was Okemah. Located about halfway between Oklahoma City and Tulsa, it was and still remains a small town of around 5,000 people. The county seat of Okfuskee County, it boasted high school sports, the Crystal Theater and Pioneer Day where a trophy was given to the man with the best beard and the woman with the best chocolate chip cookie.
However, Okemah didn't boast about being the hometown of Woody Guthrie. The old timers never forgave him for being a "commie." His name was equivalent to a curse. My father's friend, Colonel Martin remembered him fondly from their experiences together as boys. But then, the colonel ran a bar, so it was expected that some of his associates would be disreputable. Rather than capitalize on the notoriety a "famous son" could bring the town, they were content to languish while the young people moved on and industry passed them by.
My parents were originally from that part of Oklahoma, so when my father retired from the Air Force, we moved back to become acquainted with the grandparents we had never known, because we'd lived around the world on a half a dozen military bases. As Woody had grown up and left small-town life for the world, we were leaving the world for the communal roots our parents had known as children.
Being a child who danced to my own music, I didn't have many close friends in this humorlessly conservative area. I traversed town perimeters, alone, on my bicycle: exploring dilapidated old buildings that were supposedly haunted, tasting the epicurean delights of Ted's Iceberg, and treating myself to a new movie each week at the Crystal.
One who did become a good friend was the town librarian. I spent more time at the library than any other place, including my house. It was as much fun finding the books as reading them. Moving sideways along the shelves, glancing quickly at the titles and authors for something to catch my eye. Running my index finger down the spine of a book that slowed my search. Feeling the anticipation as I pulled the book from its nest to open to the title page, and then, scanning the first few pages of its story.
To my delight, I learned there were rules for everyone else. And rules for me. Even though I began my visits to the library at the age of eight, very quickly I was given permission to call Miss Wyatt by her first name, Mildred. The check-out limit of four books didn't apply to me because, " you have such a deep respect for the words you read. We certainly can trust you with the books that hold them."
Many times, after my selections were made, I couldn't wait to be home, reading. I would take the books to the little room in the back of the library where the mystery and suspense books were stored, climb up into the window seat and begin. Through the window, I could see the top of the house in which Woody Guthrie lived while growing up. No one would speak of him except in the harshest of terms. When I learned he had written, "This Land is Your Land," I was confused how this man could be hated by flag-waving patriots.
I read "Bound for Glory," his autobiography. I heard "Deportees," his song lamenting the plight of migrant farm workers. Suddenly, I was reconnected with the huge world outside. The disenfranchised feeling that overwhelmed me since our move, was eased. Leaving London, Wiesbaden, Santa Rosa, Great Falls for a town whose biggest concern was the win-loss ratio of its high school football team didn't seem so frustrating. I had these two friends, Mildred and Woody, who helped me be connected.
Mildred was the one who allowed me entry to other worlds, cultures, and times through the unlimited access she allowed me to the books under her watch. Woody helped me to feel the experiences of so many others who had inhabited the world in his lifetime. I could sit in that window-seat, look at his house and imagine the sights and sounds he absorbed while growing up in Okemah. Listen to his music and hear how he translated that into an ability to convey the tragedies of the Dust Bowl dwellers, the Okie migration. My heart broke to know he was dying in a New York hospital.
As an adult, I often returned to Okemah. I always went to the library to say hello to Mildred...and my books. I learned then that she had always known my long and frequent visits to the library were as much about avoiding a violent and harsh family life as they were about my love of books and reading. But she had carefully refrained from even hinting at her knowledge, allowing me my refuge with dignity.
She always knew the books I enjoyed the most were "The Wizard of Oz" series. I never tired of them. Even as I grew older and my tastes in reading material matured, I never outgrew Dorothy, Glinda, Ozma and the other denizens of the magical kingdom of Oz. I would check the Oz books out on my library card, read them there and still take them home with me as if that could prolong the spell they cast.
Before she died, Mildred carefully boxed eight of the Oz books that were being retired to make room for newer copies. She sent them to me with no note, knowing the books would speak for her. The air around me seemed to hang heavy when I opened that box. I ran my finger down the spines and pulled one out. "The Silver Princess in Oz." I turned to the title page but was stopped by what I found in the front of the book. There, nestled inside its paper pocket, was the library card used to record each borrower's name and due date. My childish scrawl recorded each visit I made to Oz. Like the marks on a wall declaring growth spurts, those dates told of my life during dark times and how I learned to survive them.
So thank-you Mildred and Woody....it's been good to know 'ya.
Jan L. Hodges works for a small, regional publishing firm, which has re-activated her love of writing and books. She loves following the birthing process for new books, the way in which an author shapes and molds sentences with words and punctuation in order to communicate their own unique outlook or experience, telling a story that bridges a gap, lightens a heart, or deepens a thought. She finds inspiration in the rescued animals that share her home. She would like to learn words to enrich.
Artwork "Mesmerized" by Claudia Barber
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