When I learned to read next to a UFO

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS -

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.”

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