I watched from the window, as children raced wildly along the sidewalk and onto the street where we lived; they giggled, yelled and screamed in pure joy. These were the neighborhood kids, and on that evening, as always, they would continue playing in the street until long after the sun descended, and night had fallen. Then suddenly, through this teeming pack of kids, my dad appeared. In his arms he carried a rather large box which, by the grimace on his face, seemed quite heavy. He crossed the street and entered the front door of our home. Once inside, he set the box on the floor. Then he went back outside across the street to his truck and in a short while he returned, carrying another box, the same size and dimensions as the first. This, he repeated two more times.
My father had purchased a twenty-volume set of Collier's Encyclopedias; soon he would place them inside a mahogany and glass bookcase in the living room of our small home in Alexandria, Virginia and throughout my childhood, I would lay on our living room floor in front of that bookcase and spend hours reading about ancient empires, remote lands, and legendary heroes.
In days to come, after Dad came home from work, if he saw me still up and reading from one of the volumes, he would gently tiptoe inside the front door, being careful not to disturb me. Reading the articles in an encyclopedia was, in his estimation, roughly equivalent to reading the Holy Grail. His attitude about books in general, and especially encyclopedias, bordered on a type of reverence. This was due in part to his own scanty education; he himself could barely read.
My dad had been an orphan—sort of. He was born just outside of Suffolk, Virginia, in a small, impoverished town, near the North Carolina border. He was born into a family that did not want him. Actually, his mother died giving birth to his younger brother (the infant also died at birth), then months later, when his father remarried, it was to a woman who openly complained that she did not want to raise another woman's child.
As a youngster he was passed around from home to home among relatives; he slept in their basements or backrooms or woodsheds. He was not dealt with as a child but rather a minor irritation. He did hard, grinding farm work during the day and was granted no time at all to attend elementary school. By the time he reached his early teen years, he packed up his meager belongings and left. From that time onward, he lived on his own.
As a teenager he spent his energies in a fierce struggle to survive. Hindered by his inability to read, and unable to join the military because of persistent foot problems (the result of being overworked as a little child) he supported himself by working small jobs along the eastern seaboard, trekking yearly from Florida to New England. In winter, he journeyed to the south where he did migratory work in vineyards or labored in orange groves in Florida or Georgia. Then as the weather warmed, he traveled northward where he'd worked on chicken farms in the Carolinas. In summer he traveled to New Jersey or Pennsylvania or Massachusetts where he cleaned public toilets, vacuumed, and mopped floors in business offices or worked on delivery trucks. In between, he found all sorts of pick-up jobs; he once worked as a short order chef in a roadside diner. Another time he was a pitchman at a carnival. He was that tall, skinny, silky smooth, fast-talking young guy you'd see, smiling at folks who passed by, calling out: "Step right up! Step right up!"
Those teen years were dangerous times for him. As a young man, Joseph—that was his given name, though people called him "Tender" because of his sensitive, tender feet—found himself traveling among that group of men who subsisted slightly below society's radar screen. He lived and moved among a contingent of transients: drifters, vagrants, and nomads in search of adventure. A great portion of them had also been abandoned as children and had then become homeless wanderers who roamed incessantly from town to town.
Among this horde were a vast assortment of con men: professional pickpockets, smooth-talking scam artists and grizzled street hustlers. Also, among them were some of the most violent and angry men in civilized society: felons on parole, men who bought or sold contraband or smuggled illegal goods, as well as an assortment of goons and thugs. Many of these men were always armed with a wide assortment of weapons: unregistered and concealed pistols, sawed off shotguns in satchels, highlander hunting knives, and an assortment of other weapons.
One night as my father was leaving a public beach, a man walked up from behind and stabbed him in the back with an ice pick. This man would later boast to police that he simply desired the woman whom Joseph was dating at the time; stabbing a rival in the back was his method of removing unwanted competition. The ice pick snapped off and a half-inch of metal remained buried in his back.
During emergency surgery, the surgeon (who wonderfully stopped the internal bleeding and thus saved his life) feared that extracting the metal would risk damaging the spine or a nearby network of nerves. The doctor left the metal in his back and sutured the wound shut. In later years, my father would sometimes grind his teeth as if in response to physical discomfort, a lingering testament to the portion of metal that remained lodged beneath the scar tissue.
The lessons of those early years taught him to depend utterly on himself alone. He learned to live by his wits. He lived a hard life. He had a razor-sharp mind and a frightful inferiority complex. He had fallen through one of those cracks in our society and had gotten lost like a child wandering aimlessly through the darkness.
The fact that he was so bright yet undereducated has often made me wonder how different things might have been for him had he gotten some education. A man's viewpoint and philosophy are shaped and fashioned, at least in part, by the culture he moves within. Having never been part of the society of businessmen or attorneys or professors, he was, as a young man, under the impression that they were more intelligent than he was. How he envied those men in their tailored suits, who strode about clutching their leather briefcases as they entered diners where he worked, or those executives who sat at the desks in the offices he had spent the night mopping and cleaning.
There is, I believe, a truth hidden beneath the swirling currents of social status, heredity, and advanced education. A truth that whispers just beneath the façade of culture—that a man's potential may remain hidden, even from himself, all his life. From childhood to his early twenties his desire for knowledge and education lay dormant, as if in a frozen, embryonic state. Then one day his entire world changed when he met a beautiful young woman who in a few years would become his wife. Her name was Etta Mae.
Etta Mae was also from the Commonwealth of Virginia. Her ancestors, like his, had been slaves, working on Virginia plantations in the 1800's. After the Civil War and emancipation, now as freemen, her great-great grandparents settled down and made a life for themselves in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, in Albemarle County, Virginia. This is where she had been raised. And, interestingly, in childhood she had traveled a path somewhat similar to his.
One of her parents, her father, had also died when she was a child. And, as was true in his case, the remaining parent had given her up.But unlike him, she was not left to fend for herself. Her elderly, paternal grandparents took her in and raised her. Their love and care shaped and molded her into the happy and bright young woman she would become. Those who knew her in her youth said that she was, as a young girl, full of confidence and totally without guile. After high school she left home and went to work as a nanny for a wealthy family in Northern Virginia.
One day, as she was dining in a café with two girl pals, a lean young man who worked there, walked up and introduced himself. As they were talking, the young man removed his jacket and handed it to her. He asked her to hold onto it while he finished the last twenty-five minutes of his shift, assisting the manager of the café, closing and locking up the diner for the night. She fumed to her friends, "How dare he ask me to hold onto his coat! Who did he think he was?" She boiled and stewed for the entire twenty-five minutes, but she did not leave. And, oddly enough, when he returned to retrieve his sports jacket, she was quickly caught up in his animated conversation and in no time, she too was smiling and chatting as if nothing had happened. They quickly became a couple.
As they dated, she soon discovered that he could not read, so she encouraged him to learn. When she saw that he wasn't trying very well, she decided she would just read to him, and this she did every day. Newspapers and magazines. Paperback novels and football brochures. She read him anything she could get her hands on and, amazingly, he soaked up all this voluminous, indiscriminate knowledge as the broken earth soaks up rain.
In reading to him she, in some peculiar way, seemed to have spoken to a kind of darkness or void inside him. His heart opened and so began some kind of healing on the inside. Though she was no teacher, she nevertheless starting teaching him to read, and although he never moved much beyond an elementary level, this still somehow kindled in him an incredible love for books and learning. He would see to it that his children would attain the education that had alluded him.
As a married adult and father, every night he would come home from his job as a construction worker, clothed in thick overalls, and often with cement crusted on his shoes, his hands, or his face. He would peek into the window from the front porch to see if his child was still up, and then, if he saw me reading, he'd gently tiptoe inside the door and move over into his favorite place. He loved the color green and once inside the living room he'd softly plop down onto his big, cushioned green chair; the chair that was shoved right beside the window that overlooked our small front porch. From this window one could look out onto the sidewalk where each night children rushed about, laughing, playing, racing along the blacktop street which glimmered under the flickering Virginian streetlamps. Earlier, I had been playing out there as well, but as night descended, my mom called out and I came from the darkness into our brightly lit living room. Once inside, I tumbled onto the gold-linoleum floor and began to read. Outside, through the open window, I could hear the echo of dozens of other children roaming continuously about the darkening street.
From his chair, my father sleepily watched me read. In his eyes, encyclopedias were objects of great worth, each volume as precious as a treasure chest. Never would he allow even one of them to be soiled or dirtied. He loved the sight of them—even loved the scent of those newly purchased books. Books or learning or formal education (they were all the same to him) were the issues dearest to his heart. Purchasing those encyclopedias had, indeed, been a momentous act.
The day he brought home those encyclopedias, I watched as he lugged them inside in those large cardboard boxes. I yelled, "Look!" and nearly tripped over my own feet as I raced to the front room, pointing, "Daddy's got some new books."
"No, no—" he corrected me, these weren't just books, they were encyclopedias. He was smiling. Then, standing in the center of our living room with closed eyes, he slowly, almost reverently lifted one of the volumes to his face and gently inhaled the fresh scent. With a wide smile on his face, he told me firmly that I had better treat those books with respect.
The set of encyclopedias, or rather the information they contained, would become our family heirloom—a gift bequeathed to his heirs. It was to his tribute that all his children went off to attend colleges and universities before a heart attack claimed his life. Earth returned to earth, buried beneath layer upon layer of precious memories.
One last recollection: A few years after his death I was walking through the upscale, bustling 'Olde Towne' district of Alexandria, Virginia, moving casually along the crowded sidewalk, looking, I suppose, very much like the college instructor I had become: clothed in casual, beige-colored slacks, a crisp, white shirt and a necktie. Night had just begun to descend when, glancing to my left, something caught my attention.
Turning, I saw a small, rather elegant bookstore. Walking over, peeking into the window, I noticed in the rear of the store a multi-colored display sign that read: "Discount Price—Encyclopedias." Gently, easing inside the doorway, then silently moving along the narrow aisle to the back of the store, I found, beneath the sign, a shiny twenty-four-volume set of spanking new, hardbound encyclopedias.
For a moment, I stood in silence. Then, lifting one of the volumes and opening it, I peacefully, reverently flipped through the glistening new pages. With eyes closed, I held the book up to my face to inhale its fresh scent. As I did this, my mind began to turn back to childhood. A memory leaped up and I was there again, a boy, lying on our living room floor in front of that shimmering, glass bookcase. Once more I heard the whispering voices of little children outside, wandering aimlessly through the darkness. Once more I felt that cool evening breeze drift through the open window and nestle upon me like a bird of night. And, once more, there was my dad, eyes closed, hands folded upon his chest, comfortably at rest, sitting back in that big, warm, cushioned chair, softly humming to himself and smiling down on me.
Image above provided courtesy of Clinton Parker. Title image "Reference Desk" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2022.