My mother, Janet Shields, was born in 1917, in Szechuan, China, a “day’s sedan-chair ride from Chungking.” She was born in China because her parents, Dr. Kyle Simpson and Alice Simpson, were medical missionaries in China from about 1905 until 1927. Though Canadian, they settled in Pontiac, Michigan on their return from China, as they felt they could have a better practice there.
They arrived just in time for The Depression, and so were never wealthy, even though my grandfather was a doctor.
Mother married my father, Swanson Claude Shields, in a whirlwind romance in 1943, following his visit to Pontiac after serving in the U.S. Army in Iceland.
I was born in late 1944. My parents divorced a few years later, and in September, 1950, my mother decided to start a new life, and we moved to what became my hometown, Albuquerque, New Mexico.
My mother didn’t attend college, as her family decided to send her younger sister, Pauline, to college while my mother worked. My mother’s greatest regret was that she was unable to attend the University of Michigan, as that had been her goal since she won a statewide competition — in French as I recall – that included a visit to the campus in Ann Arbor. (That is why I have such great attachment to the Univ. of Michigan to this day.)
As a result, my mother, though quite intelligent, didn’t have the advantages that come to those who have a college degree, and worked for most of her life as a secretary/typist. One sign of her intelligence was her vocabulary, the largest of any person I have ever known.
She was, however, a master of one widely-used technology from those bygone days: the typewriter. For example, she once taught typing at a business school, and achieved the astounding rate of 150 words-per-minute (wpm) on a manual typewriter. She was capable of typing at 80+ wpm on a manual or electric typewriter for hour after hour, and because of that I have a special skill in that I can recognize a skilled typist just by the rhythm of their typing.
I followed in her steps by taking a summer course in typing after the eighth grade, so I entered the ninth grade able to type reliably at 60 wpm, a skill that proved useful when I became a programmer.
She was most proud that within three or four days after she first arrived in Albuquerque she was able to rent an apartment and find a job, as a secretary for the local theater chain.
She walked me to school the first day. After that, I was on my own. Aware that it was important to her that I not get sick, I never missed a day of school due to illness from the latter months of second grade until I graduated high school. (I felt for many years that I never got sick, but she later told me that I did get sick, but only on weekends.)
She never made much money. We never had a phone. We didn’t have a TV until I was almost twelve, and we only got that TV because I won it in a raffle contest. We didn’t get a car until I was over fifteen. I first flew on a plane only because I won the Mathematics Division of the New Mexico State Science Fair, and part of the award was a round trip to visit Holloman Air Force Base in White Sands, New Mexico. I didn’t leave New Mexico until the fall of 1962, when I boarded a train to begin my undergraduate education at Caltech. I was only able to go to Caltech because I was awarded a full scholarship; otherwise I would have attended the only school within our means, the University of New Mexico.
(By the way, I had no contact with my father between August, 1950, and April, 1997, less than six months before his death. But that is a story for another post.)
I have given all this background to explain why I spent my childhood, at least until I was over twelve, traveling on foot, bus, or bicycle.
Because of our limited circumstances I had only limited access to culture:
- Cinema, which we could attend for free since she worked for the theater chain.
- Radio, a subject for another post;
For example, I saw all the great British comedies starring Alec Guiness as a small child: Lavender Hill Mob, Kind Hearts and Coronets, Captain’s Paradise, Ladykillers, and so forth.I also have fond memories of Passport to Pimlico and, especially as it is one of my all-time favorite movies,The Titfield Thunderbolt.
But movies are just a one-time event.
Reading is for life.
I thus spent most of my waking hours as a child reading … thousands and thousands of hours of reading. I did most of that reading on one place. Save sleeping, I probably spent almost as many hours reading in that place as I did at home.
That place was the Ernie Pyle House/Library.
My guess is that few people under the age of sixty would recognize the name “Ernie Pyle.” He was a foreign correspondent in WWII. Though this blog is named after A. J. Liebling, who himself was an occasional war correspondent, Pyle was the most famed war correspondent of his day, because more than any other reporter he captured the essence and day-to-day life of the American soldier in combat, writing about young boys who became men in their first few minutes of actual combat.
Pyle and his wife had no children. Living a nomadic existence, they bought a home in Albuquerque in the early 1940’s, though they never spent much time there. Ernie Pyle was killed by a sniper in the Pacific theater in the last days of the war. His wife survived for only a few years afterwards, and left the house to the city of Albuquerque, which decided to use it as a library.
Looking back over half a century, I have fond — and very detailed — memories of my home away from home. The property was surrounded by a picket fence, unusual for Albuquerque, where few homes had any fences, and those that did mostly had wire fences. The one-car garage on the right became the children’s library. To the left of that was the kitchen. To the left of the kitchen was a small space where the librarians worked to receive and checkout books. That space was at the back of the living room. There was fireplace on the right side of the living room, on top of which were displayed the “recent arrivals.” To the left and rear was what I expect was a bedroom, which was used for non-fiction, magazines, and records. To the left and front was a dining room; it was used for reference materials, and had in the center a glass-topped table; under the glass were several articles about Ernie Pyle, and there was also a collection of his work on the back wall, near the encyclopedias.
I expect I have spent more time in that library than any other person who was not a librarian. I literally devoured that library, reading book after book after book. I read every issue of Life magazine, Consumer Reports, and so on. I read much of the encyclopedia.
Why not? I had nothing else to do, save reading. So I read on and on and on. If I didn’t read the books at the library, I went to the Ernie Pyle library to find them, and then rode home on my bike with a fresh load of books in my “saddle bag.”
One of my major steps to adulthood came in the fourth grade, when I was able to convince the librarians that they shouldn’t make me wait until the sixth grade, the then requirement to take out books as an adult, which meant being able to take our lots more books at one time.
Now, I could go on, and will perhaps add more to this post at a later date.
But I do think I have written enough to show the essential role libraries played in my childhood, and why I hold librarians –the providers of books — in such high esteem.