When I learned to read next to a UFO
The “flying saucer” library of my childhood has closed its doors, and soon the demolition will begin. Bricks and mortar and twisted steel will be trucked off to make way for a 21st-century version of its former self. The literary temple of my youth is gone, but not my memories.
I was just 10 when the iconic building first opened its doors three blocks from my house in University Park. It was 1964, and we were going to the moon. President John F. Kennedy had said so. And that flying-saucer design everyone walked beneath to enter the library reminded us that we were now living in the space age.
That new Hyattsville Branch Library on Adelphi Road was the first place I was allowed to walk by myself and to cross a busy street. The risk/reward conundrum was evident on my mother’s face, but it didn’t last long. The world of books and reading won out. “But don’t you dare ever cross that road while you’re reading a book!” she warned me. “It’s okay to read when you’re walking down the sidewalk; just not when you’re crossing the street.”
“I’m going to the library!” was the first phrase of freedom I recall saying out loud to my mother. With my library card in my pocket, I would skip around the corner and out of her sight as she worked in the yard on a hot summer day.
Around the corner and down Tennyson Road, I walked by the homes of famous people I had yet to discover. Next to the alley I passed the house where Jim Henson grew up. He moved out just before our arrival in University Park, but I knew his Wilkins Coffee ads on television. Some of his earliest puppets — high school creations — perched atop the library stacks in the children’s section where I read books by Robert McCloskey and “Island of the Blue Dolphins” and “Rabbit Hill.”
Walking to the library, I passed close by the homes of Gordon W. Prange (“At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor”) and James M. Cain (“The Postman Always Rings Twice”), whose books I was too young to appreciate. My parents spoke of these men in worshipful tones but warned me that old Mr. Cain could be “crabby” and not to expect too much if we rang his bell for trick or treat on Halloween night.
This library was the sanctuary where I read Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” after dodging the DDT spray truck trolling our neighborhood. I worried about the fates of all the butterflies as I studied the beautiful color illustrations in the Golden Guide’s “Butterflies and Moths,” written by our neighbor Robert T. Mitchell.
I sneak-read “Rosemary’s Baby” in my lap under a library table in the adult section, where I watched boys and passed notes and giggled too much with my friends. Now and again when we were unable to “Shush!” we got tossed out by a matronly librarian.
In the library, I first saw the film “The Red Shoes” and dreamed of being something more than someone’s wife and mother. My own mother was distressed by this new development. “They’re showing films now? Do they lower the lights in the auditorium?” she wanted to know. “No boys!” she insisted. “You can go with your girlfriends, but no boys.”
I learned about the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, announced over the library public address system, while researching an honors project about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.” Some people applauded, some people cried.
And on my way to becoming an adult, it was in the flying-saucer library where I read the first edition of “What Color is Your Parachute?” and learned how to apply for serious jobs.
Even though the flying saucer is moving on, my memories of the place will be saved, stored away until the new library is completed. Only then will that once-fabulous 1960s creation return to a place of honor in the shadow of the next Hyattsville Branch Library — as a garden folly to gather beneath and remember.
The Hyattsville Branch Library’s “flying saucer.”