Air conditioning must rank near the top of the list of the best inventions of the 21st century. At least that’s how I feel in the midst of a characteristic summer heat wave like the one we’ve had this month.
Home air conditioning was rare when I was growing up – some people had noisy, rattling window units, but we didn’t. Commercial establishments that had “a/c” advertised it with signs in the front window saying “It’s cool inside,” with icicles dripping from the word ‘cool.”
Of course we couldn’t hang out in restaurants or movie theaters all day, and the swimming pool didn’t open until 1 p.m. Fortunately for us, the library was one of the air conditioned public buildings in town. We could spend hours at a time in the blessed coolness before taking our books home to read in the basement family room (with a dehumidifier providing climate control).
One of my favorite books about Midwestern summer was written many years ago. Each year I revisit it because it is so evocative of the season and the place. And, of course, it includes a story about the library.
“Garnet thought this must be the hottest day that had ever been in the world….This morning the thermometer outside the village drug store had pointed a thin red finger to one hundred and ten degrees Fahrenheit…..It was like being inside of a drum. The sky like a bright skin was tight above the valley, and the earth, too, was tight and hard with heat.”
So begins Thimble Summer, Elizabeth Enright’s classic story about Garnet and Citronella, two nine-year-olds in a small town in Wisconsin in the 1930’s.
In the chapter titled “Locked In,” the girls get a ride into town on a Saturday afternoon. “Finally they came to the library, an old-fashioned frame building set back from the road among thick-foliaged maple trees. Garnet loved the library; it smelled deliciously of old books and was full of stories she had never read. Miss Pentland, the librarian, was a nice little fat lady who sat behind an enormous desk facing the door…..Many times the screen door of the library creaked and closed with a muffled bang as people came and went; other children and grown people, old ladies looking for books on crocheting and boys wanting stories about G-men….Garnet was thousands of miles away with Kotick, the white seal, and Citronella was in ballroom lighted by a hundred chandeliers and crowded with beautiful ladies and gentlemen in full evening dress.”
The girls were so quiet and absorbed in their books that Miss Pentland didn’t realize they were still there when she closed the library – and locked the door! “There was no telephone in the library and no electric light. There were gas fixtures but the girls could not find any matches.” The girls banged on the windows but no one heard them. Their fathers discovered them at midnight but Miss Pentland had to come (“her hat on sideways”) to unlock the door. After fried egg sandwiches and apple pie at the diner – the only place open so late – the girls reveled in their adventure.
75 years after Garnet and Citronella’s adventures were recorded, and 50 years after my own experiences, the public library is still the COOLEST place in town. Surely you agree – and I hope to see you at ZBPL one of these afternoons!