Tag Archives: Hugh Lofting

The Busy Bee Club

I like children.

My first job was as a clerk in the Children’s Department of the Lexington Public Library. For three years or so, I shelved, catalogued, read, recommended, and checked-out books by Seuss, Blyton, Kendall, Lofting, and multitudinous others.

I also listened to books…long before audio books were popular.

We would have clubs to spur reading in the kids. I remember the “Busy Bee Club.” Kids would receive credit for every book they read. The credits would translate into little paper bees bearing the child’s name, which would then be placed on a large poster of a bee hive for all the world to see. Of course, the claim of readership would have to be verified to earn their bee.

That’s where I came in. I would sit and quiz the child about each book.

“Tell me about Oobleck.”

“What is this picture of a two-headed animal?”

“Who is Muggles?”

“What would you do if you ran the zoo?”

“If you could really talk to the animals, what excuses could you make?”

I didn’t really ask that last question, but there were days…

These sessions could be wearying and repetitive, but mostly they were just the opposite. These children had discoveries to relate. To them, Walter Farley’s Island Stallion gave them an individual special power of speed that no one had known before. They could feel the wind and heat and freedom of the gallop. It was a little bit scary…but it was only a book. Horton’s defense of the Who’s was exhilarating and noble and yes, a little bit scary, but it was only…a book.

And the bees proliferated and buzzed.

I liked these kids. Their passions about their discoveries were immediate and not premeditated. Their instincts bent toward the right thing to do. I flinched at times when they shrank from those good instincts because they had been taught to distrust them. I flinched more often when their instincts cast a revealing light on my own distrusts. We both survived, and I think, were made better. The bees buzzed happily.

I say I liked these kids.

I say I like children.

But…

…I can’t honestly say I like them equally.

There were some children who came prepared for my questions. They were just as passionate about their stories, but they were not un-premeditated. They had been schooled on how to phrase their answers, by their parents…or perhaps, simply by their parents’ expectations. That was okay by me. I still liked them. But they were children being adults as best as they knew how. Bees still buzzed.

Children being adult-ish…nothing wrong with that, I suppose…but a touch…sad.

It’s certainly better than the reverse.

Adults being childish…not so exciting, not so charming, certainly not so helpful.

Complaining about wearing a mask to protect others…childish and cruel. Weren’t we taught as children to treat others as we wish to be treated ourselves? We shouldn’t even have to be told.

Judging people by their appearances and then acting against or for those people based on our superficial judgement…childish and cruel. Weren’t we taught to not judge a book by its cover? We shouldn’t even have to be told.

Mocking people who are afflicted…or different…or simply disagree with us…childish and cruel. Weren’t we taught…? We shouldn’t even have to be told.

Isn’t it interesting that in these distracted times, the bees are disappearing?

…more than a little bit scary…

…and it’s not a book.

Steinbeck and Screens

When people I meet learn;

  • That at my mom’s urging, I was reading before I started school;
  • My first job was as a clerk in the Children’s Department of the Lexington Public Library;
  • I’ve collected books since I was fifteen;
  • With Janie’s permission, a loan from a friend, a thoughtful and caring set of plans from another friend, and a year of formidable building skills from yet another friend, I built a library. I built a library…pht-t-t-t. I wrote checks, said “GO,” kept out of the way, and admired the work – that’s what I did;

They get the point that books are uber-important to me.

Often, I will then get the question; “What’s your favorite book?”

Often I will cheat on the answer; “Today, my favorite book is actually two books by John Steinbeck; CANNERY ROW and SWEET THURSDAY.” It’s not really cheating. The two books tell one story about Steinbeck’s friend, Doc Ricketts. The books have all the basic food groups; Monterey, homeless men living a mostly gleeful life in abandoned corrugated tubes, a whorehouse, a frog hunt, a seer who inspires sunsets instead of the other way around, a Chinese storekeeper who cheats at chess, beer milk shakes, octopi, and Suzy driving a stick shift.

It also has a classic Steinbeck line that, to me, goes far to explain the current toxicity of our political life.

“Men seem to be born with a debt they can never pay no matter how hard they try. It piles up ahead of them. Man owes something to man. If he ignores the debt it poisons him…”

I wonder if our current addiction to screens and our hunger and demand for complete access to all things at all times for no sacrifice of effort and treasure, is simply a path to distraction…and perhaps eventual destruction. We distract ourselves constantly to keep from acknowledging our debt to our species and other species for that matter. We substitute knowing things quickly for knowing things well…and then we do the same for the people we meet.

I’m gonna do better…

…and perhaps slower.

I’m certainly gonna vote…

…and I’m gonna vote in a way that pays at least a little of that debt I owe to all species.

Now, if tomorrow I’m asked about my favorite book, my answer might be THE STORY OF DR. DOLITTLE by Hugh Lofting.

I can’t explain it.

It’s the way I roll.

Life Under the Hedge

Janie and I live under a hedge.

No, we’re not hobbits…though it’s a tempting notion.

No, we’re not deluded…I’m pretty sure.

No, we truly live under a hedge.

Almost 20 years ago, we built a brick wall behind our house. By design, it has missing bricks in a pattern that enables you see through it. It has a mighty trellis on top of it and an iron gate with a heron silhouette.

When it was completed, on the guidance of the wall’s designer (our friend, Sanford Pollack), we planted trumpet vine next to the wall. We didn’t quite follow Sandy’s guidance as faithfully as perhaps we should have. His suggestion to plant one vine was utterly disregarded. It looked so puny. So…we planted six.

As the vines grew and became one, we threaded it into the wall itself and eventually, into the trellis. We removed any trace of green below the trellis, but let the vine run amok above.

The result?

Today, under the trellis, the vines are 1-4 inch in diameter woody snakes entwining the bricks. They resemble Hugh Lofting’s line drawings of trees in his “Dr. Doolittle” books or the various dancing trees in Fleischer cartoons. Those squiggly sequoias support the hedge above the trellis.

The hedge is about 30 feet long and ranges from 4-7 feet high above the trellis, reaching a peak of about 13 feet above the ground, and is quite impenetrable. It’s dense, green, and celebrates each summer with hundreds of clumps of butter-yellow and orange-red trumpet blossoms. I’m told it was Thomas Jefferson’s favorite garden plant. I share his opinion except when I’m combating the hedge’s myriad “volunteers” that insinuate themselves everywhere at the rate of several inches a day.

I love living under the hedge despite the constant battle with its efforts of expansion.

– It’s on the weather side of the house and garden. Its mass offers at least the illusion of some natural defense against natural assaults.

– When cirrus-eyed poets from pre-drone days rhapsodize about “How many colors of blue make up the sky?” and speculate on eyes watching us “make love well” from above, I’m happier with the illusion of privacy the hedge offers.

– In winter when the vines are denuded of their foliage, I’m encouraged when the hedge becomes a chattering condo for tiny nesting birds, though the heron gate beneath suffers the indignity of the resulting guano rain.

Yes, I love living under the hedge, and weirdly enough, despite my determined eradication of its invasive offspring, I think the hedge patronizes me and thinks me to be of some interest.

Otherwise, why would it speak to me?

(Cue the theme from “The Twilight Zone”)

Fire Truck (Revised)

Now before I start ramblin’, all you fact-checkers, and score-keepers – just let it go.

Relax.

This little tale has been pressed through a 40-year-plus filter of memory. If it’s not perfectly factual and accurate…as the very fine Kentucky songwriter Mitch Barrett puts it; “I ain’t lyin’, I’m tellin’ you a story”.

Besides, it’s not like I have the codes to our country’s nuclear arsenal or anything.

This is simply how I remember it.

I’ve related the story Groucho Marx told of how he ended up in show business;

“I saw this advertisement in the newspaper for a job. I needed a job. I ran 6 blocks and up 3 flights of stairs and I knocked on the door. This fellow answered the door wearing lipstick and a dress. I thought; ‘How long has this been going on?’”

I suspect most theatre participants have had a similar moment of truth (or deception).

I know I had several. This is one.

When I was in high school, I had a part time job in the children’s department of the public library in Lexington. At that time, the library’s main (and only) branch was in what is now known as the Carnegie Reading Center in Gratz Park. I would finish my school day at Bryan Station High School, walk over to the junior high building (middle school not having been invented then), and catch the city bus for a 35-minute ride to my 70-cents-an-hour part-time gig at the library. Did I also mention that it snowed every day and the roads all ran uphill – coming and going?

I loved the job and I loved being in the Gratz Park neighborhood.

The bus would drop me at the Apothecary (not drug store, mind you – apothecary) on the corner of Market and Second, usually about 30-40 minutes before I was scheduled to start my shift. The Apothecary was next door to the original Morris Book Store. Occasionally, I would peruse the book store. Mr. Morris himself special-ordered for me my hardbound editions of THE LORD OF THE RINGS in 1968. But most of the time, I would slip downstairs to the Apothecary and get a bag of chips and a coke and slink through their back door and down the hall to a strange little subterranean chamber in which resided a parrot (or macaw or dodo…or whatever) on a guano-ringed floor stand. I never knew why the bird was there. It didn’t respond to questions. There were also stacks of story magazines in the room. No, not porn, just story magazines. I would feast on my chips and coke and reading material under the baleful eye of the parrot (or macaw or dodo…or whatever) until it was time to cross the street to the library. It all sounds so exotic today – not so much then.

On my lunch breaks I had options. I could throw my frisbee in the park until Mrs. Gratz (for real!) came out and explained that her-husband-had-given-the-land-to-the-city-and-frisbee-throwing-was-not-what-he-had-in-mind-and-how-come-my-hair-was-so-long-if-I-was-a-boy. Or, I would walk down to Brandy’s Kitchen on the corner of Main and Lime, step over the Smiley Pete memorial, and get a $1.35 daily special. This was my introduction to chicken-fried steak. I never knew exactly what a chicken-fried steak was. It didn’t respond to questions either.

At nine o’clock, I would catch the bus home unless my mom came down to give me a ride home. Any excuse for mom to visit the library was legit.

My duties were sometimes tedious, but mostly heavenly. I would shelve the returned books (restricting myself to only reading every other one), assist the “kiddie-lit” students from Transy, and listen to the children recite their reading adventures so they could gain credit in their “Busy Bee Reading Club”.

I fear it was during this period that Dr. Seuss, Walter Farley, Carol Kendall, Hugh Lofting, and Enid Blyton became more important to me than Milton, Coleridge, Byron, and Shelley (Mr. or Mrs.).

One afternoon, my assignment was to read and tell a book to several Head Start classes visiting the library. It was a rainy day. Thus, I think there were 80+ kids in that session. I read the story and then selected several kids to act it out. There weren’t nearly enough parts for all the kids. There were two six-year-old boys on the front row who were raucous in their desire to participate. (RAUCOUS PARTICIPATION IS ENCOURAGED – wouldn’t that be a great title for someone’s biography?) I pointed to one of the six-year-olds and asked him if he could play the fire truck mentioned in the story. He roared; “YES!” and began to wail his “siren” and wave his arm as a ladder. His partner and lifelong friend (six years old, remember) was crushed to left behind. I asked him what color the fire truck was. “Ray-udd!” he shouted, and with my extraordinary but certification-lacking linguistic dexterity I immediately interpreted that as “red”. I asked if he could be “red”. He leapt to his feet, stood next to his fire-truck-playing friend, made “jazz hands”, and danced frantically around his friend.

The room and I went graveyard silent in sheer awe and admiration.

That was a Groucho Marx moment.

“How long has this been going on?”

At that moment, I wanted to grow up to be that 6-year-old.

I still do.