The writings of Richard Kluger
Tuesday, Sept. 3, 1935
Have done next to nothing for a week now but eat starch, get constipated & learn to play passable poker with Sgt/Carmichael, Skeezix and Eddie Spain (50 lima beans the pot limit). The whole trick is not to bluff unless you know how.
Camp a tomb while men are gone. First the capt. told me no point in organizing ed. program till after Labor Day. Now he says wait till new enlistment period at end of month since a third to a half o f men will quit. Leaving me nothing to do while he rides off Sheridanlike, black boots agleam, on a rented steed to inspect the work projects.
Evenings more stimulating. Capt. invites me, Nesbit & Dr Haseltine (when he’s in camp) to qtrs for brandy & bull. The talk devoted of late to Mussolini & Ethiopian situation. Sparhawk admires Il Duce’s energy & says fascism, while bad for America, is only thing that could have dragged Eyetalians into 20th cent. Muss. started out just like me, he claims – well-ed. intellectual steeped in lit. who taught & wrote till mid-twenties. But he was young socialist & Capt Sp. has no doubt I am unsympathetic to that doctrine.
Feeling restless & useless. There must be something I can do.
WHEN HE ASKED EDDIE why the glass doors were always kept locked on the bookcase in the corner of the Rec, his wary face flooded with amazement. “Because,” Eddie said, “o-o-otherwise the guys would always be tak-tak-, uh – would be borrowing books all the time.”
Toby asked if that wasn’t the general purpose of a library, and Eddie agreed. The boys could of course borrow whatever they wanted; all they had to do was ask for it. “But if the case is locked,” Toby wondered, “how can they browse to see what they’d like?”
“That’s why it’s-uh, it’s-uh – got glass doors.”
Eddie’s precocious mastery of the bureaucratic mentality aside, he conceded, when pressed for details, that enrollees were not exactly encouraged to read. The captain liked the men to be active, preferably athletic, and if they were going in for sedentary entertainment, it had best be movies or radio. In fact, Radio News and The Saturday Evening Post were the only reading matter the camp officially subscribed to.
“What’s the captain afraid of?” he asked Eddie.
“Uh-uh-uh-softies.” It was Sparhawk’s catch-all epithet for anyone inclined to think too much. Heavy thinkers were likely to be brooders, and they were bad for morale. That explained why the few books theoretically accessible to the boys were all escapist pap. Even so, they might have had a better grade of it. Why hadn’t the camp appealed to the townspeople of Pittsfield and the surrounding communities for old or duplicate titles? Surely they would have been forthcoming in view of the good works the C.C.C. was performing. The captain was very sensitive on that score, Eddie disclosed, ever since the previous winter when the camp boys were denied permission to use the gymnasium at Pittsfield High School in the evenings. Excessive costs for heating, lighting, and janitorial services were blamed, but the captain suspected it was on social grounds – the enrollees were perceived as lowlife and best kept quarantined from the town, especially its nubile daughters.
The captain’s policies seemed so obviously freighted with his own fixations on this score that a frontal assault was out of the question. Instead, Toby pretended there was nothing at all at issue, even while prosecuting his case. Finding him alone in headquarters shortly before evening lineup, he asked Sparhawk if he would please announce that the bookcase was henceforth to be left unlocked and anyone wishing to borrow a title had only to write it on a slip of paper along with his name and put it in its alphabetical place by author in a shoebox on top of the case.
“Do you think that’s wise?” the captain asked.
“You mean it ought to be alphabetical by the enrollee’s name? I was thinking that too, sir. Whichever way you’d prefer would be –”
“That’s not what I had in mind.”
“Oh – you mean about putting the boys on their honor? Well, I think that would be a healthy thing, sir – a sign of trust and confidence. As a matter of fact, I’m going to add the six books of my own that I brought to camp – you know, just by way of –”
“That seems excessive, Mr. Ronan.”
“Thank you, sir, but really, I think it’s the right thing to do. Since the very first of the ‘dominant aims’ of the educational program as defined in the C.E.A. Handbook is to develop within each man his powers of ‘self-culture,’ I think I ought to set an example by –”
“Exactly what books are they?”
“What books are what, sir?”
“Yours – the ones you –”
“Oh, they’re each American classics. Let’s see, there’s Typee and A Connecticut Yankee – and The House of the Seven Gables – and Walden – and – and a collection of Poe’s, The Fall o f the House o f Usher -- I think ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ is in the same volume – and a book of Emerson’s essays – you know, ‘Liberty,’ ‘Character,’ ‘Self-Reliance’ and that sort. All first-rate things.”
“Yes, certainly. But I’m not sure I see the point, Ronan. I doubt if any of these men are up to works of that caliber.”
“What’s the harm, sir? If even one or two of them stumble upon something they like, it might enrich their lives immeasurably.”
“In fact, sir, I was hoping you might – actually consider – at least the possibility – well, no. I’ll withdraw that. Excuse me, sir.”
“What was it you wanted to say, Ronan?”
“It was impertinent, sir.”
“Why don’t you leave that for me to judge?”
“Yes, sir. Well – what I had in mind – was if perhaps –”
“Out with it, man!”
“—you might add one or two of your books to the camp collection – on loan, of course. If your name was in them, I’m sure no one would even dream of –”
“My books? My own private ones?”
He had a nice little shelf of military history prominently displayed in his quarters –Thucydides, Xenophon, Livy on the Punic Wars, The Iliad, Caesar’s Gallic Commentaries, the memoirs of U. S. Grant, biographies of Alexander, Napoleon, and a couple of other all-time, all-star bloodletters. “I thought they might conceivably inspire a few of the boys –you just never know. But of course, as you say, they’re your own private property, and it’s not my place –”
“That’s not the point, Ronan. If I felt there was any chance at all boys like these had the capacity to absorb the great lessons – and the thoughts –”
“You know, sir, you’re right – it might help if you explained some of them in your own words. We might arrange – well, I know this is jumping the gun some but the thought’s been in my head – suppose we had a course in military history once the education program gets going – that is, if you’d even consider the possibility – sir?”
“Well, I don’t know about –”
“I think a surprising number of the men would be interested.”
“It seems rather – irregular –” The eyes were flickering.
“Oh, no, it would be part of the larger curriculum – of course.”
“—and more up Nesbit’s alley than mine, anyway, so I don’t –”
“You could both do it, then – alternating lectures, perhaps?”
“Well,” he said, not displeased at the inferential sanction of his intellect by Harvard authorities, “it may be worth a thought or two.”
“I’m sure of it, sir. And think about your books, at any rate – I mean if you could see your way clear to –”
“Yes.” He brushed a microbe from one of his boots. “I’ll consider it.”
Thus were elided the prospective softening or otherwise debilitating tendencies of literature on the raw young minds in his charge. Captain Sparhawk announced the new open-door policy with some fanfare and much as if he were its originator. The addition of his and the educational advisor’s personal books was cited as evidence of an abiding concern with the mental as well as physical development of the enrollees.
That first modest concession by the forces of darkness spurred Toby’s efforts. He rode into Pittsfield two mornings later with Joe Calabrese on the daily trip for supplies and, self-conscious in his insignia-less khakis, stopped by the public library. A formidable structure of Victorian Gothic graystone, made all the grander by its name, the Berkshire Athenaeum, it gave the immediate sense of being excellently fusty and thoroughly used.
After stating the nature of his mission twice to noncommissioned harpies, he was shown to the office of a Miss Keyes, identified on the door as the assistant librarian. Miss Keyes, alas, was out at the moment. Indeed, she was often out, he was told, dividing her time as she did between the library and the Berkshire Museum around the corner, which she served as a volunteer curator. This highly versatile creature was said to be overseeing the installation of a diorama just then. Word was being dispatched; if he might be patient for a few moments, Miss Keyes would appear.
The click of a hitched gait preceded her down the hall, causing him to anticipate still another sere old maid, probably arthritic. Miss Keyes proved to be young – approaching her middle twenties – and, except for a slight but unmistakable limp in the right leg, quite brisk. She had on a no-nonsense navy dress with a little white scalloped collar that picked up the bleached purity of her gloves, which she unpeeled smartly before taking his hand. “Temple Keyes,” she said. “What can I do for you, Mr. Ronan – or are you Lieutenant Ronan or Leftenant Ronan or something equally dashing? I’m a bit vague on military matters.”
“Just Mister,” he said. “The army is fond of imposing its dress code on unarmed civilians.”
“Ali, yes,” she said, scanning her desktop for mail, messages, or anything that might have accumulated there in her absence. Without beauty and despite her handicap, Miss Keyes was by no means dowdy. Of a slenderness accentuated by the severity of her dress, she had short, bobbed, dark-blond hair; blue-gray eyes of extra width that emitted deft rays of patrolling sensibility; a small, thin mouth rescued from oblivion with a daub or two of lipstick, the only makeup he could detect on her, and a nose that formed a nearly perfect right triangle. This somewhat angular austerity was not modulated by her voice, which had a decidedly regal clarity and command, as if it were performing rather than merely uttering sentences.
“I’m sorry to have interrupted you,” he said, hoping to dispel a few of the preoccupations visible on her high brow. She looked to need a bit of jollying. “Is it an Eskimo village or a pack of elephants thundering across the veldt?”
She moved some envelopes about in front of her and glanced up with a slightly pained expression. “I beg your pardon?”
“Oh,” she said, “oh, yes. No, I’m afraid Eskimos and elephants are beyond our means. It’s owls, actually. We’re quite strong on owls. We’ve cases of them, in fact. They get dreadfully dusty. I thought we might do something rather more dynamic with them.”
“One doesn’t think of owls in terms of dynamism.”
“No,” she said, “one doesn’t – which was my point precisely. They happen to be quite fierce and accomplished predators.”
“I didn’t know. I thought they just sat up there like the Sphinx – all-seeing and all-knowing.”
“Well, you’ve got part of it right. Those big eyes of theirs help them see wondrously well at night – no rodent within miles is safe. They also have remarkably sensitive hearing. That’s what we’re trying to show – a pair of great horneds on the wing for their supper.”
“No fears of inducing nightmares among your smaller visitors?”
“Don’t laugh – the point’s been raised, and more than once. But I’ve argued that if Peter Rabbit is capable of learning realpolitik in Mr. MacGregor’s cabbage patch, then a museum should be permitted to display a few of nature’s less benign aspects. We are, after all, a teaching institution.”
“Absolutely,” he said with studied agreeableness. “Perhaps you might even add a panel showing your owls making off with Mr. MacGregor.”
She stiffened at that, taking his playfulness for mockery. There was nothing left, given her apparent tenderness, but to state his errand. Was it possible the Athenaeum had some old, ill-bound, duplicate, or otherwise unsuitable volumes stashed away somewhere that it would be pleased to part with? If so, they would be gratefully received by the C.C.C. camp.
“Really?” asked Miss Keyes. “I wouldn’t have thought they were readers – from what little I’ve heard of those boys.”
“They’re not, to be honest. I’m hoping to change that.”
“How very high-minded of you, Mr. Ronan. And if you have any luck, I’m confident the trustees here would be happy to extend borrowing privileges to your boys – provided they behave better around here than they manage to when they come to town for the movies or whatever recreation it is they find.”
“They work hard all day, Miss Keyes. I think they might be permitted to let off a little steam after hours.”
“It’s my understanding that they’re loud and profane a good deal of the time. That is not the way to ingratiate themselves to this community.”
“Perhaps if the community were to extend a welcoming hand –”
“It’s not easy to welcome an army that’s been imposed on you.”
“It’s your forest they’re out there restoring – and your merchants they buy supplies from. Doesn’t that somewhat mitigate their boorishness?”
“It might – if one knew what it was they were doing out there in the first place. It’s all been kept very secretive – save for the vulgarity.”
“Without doubt there’s a problem here in public relations. But it is a work area, after all. I believe they’re to be finished by the middle of next year. Till then, I understand, parts of it will be open to skiers.”
“So I’ve heard,” she said and clasped her hands in front of her. “Skiing happens not to be one of my own pursuits, but I’m sure the community will be most grateful to your organization when all’s said and done. Meanwhile, as I say, we’d be happy to consider individual applications for a card from the better-behaved boys.”
“That’s quite impractical, I’m afraid. They’re out in the field during most library hours.”
“Then perhaps you might want to apply, yourself. I’m sure that –“
“You say you have no expendable titles whatever?”
“I don’t remember saying that, Mr. Ronan.”
“Oh. I guess it’s just the impression I got.”
“The fact is, the Berkshire Athenaeum has one of the very highest circulation ratios in the entire country, Mr. Ronan. We take pride in putting all our books to work and not leaving them stuck away somewhere, as you suppose.”
“I didn’t suppose – I inquired. And I’m sorry your undoubtedly deserved pride doesn’t extend to the labors of the earnest young men out there in the woods. Thank you for your time, Miss Keyes.”
“Mr. Ronan.” She sat there, understandably disinclined to offer her palm in farewell.
He was sure he had overplayed his punishing exit lines until he received a postcard at the camp a few days later asking him kindly to telephone. It was signed “T. Keyes.” He dialed her promptly from the pay booth in the corner of the Rec. She sounded, if possible, more chillingly remote when compressed into electromagnetic impulses. “Oh, yes,” she said, “Mister Ronan – you’ve been preying on my conscience.”
“You seem oversupplied with predators, Miss Keyes.”
There was a crackling pause. “I beg your pardon?”
“Nothing. Don’t let me –”
“Oh, the owls!”
“Yes, but forgive me, I didn’t mean to –”
“You know, you have a slightly skewed wit, Mr. Ronan.”
“I’ve heard that said.”
She actually laughed. The notes were neither a freshet nor a ratchet but as identifiably a laugh as her limp was a limp. “Be that as it may,” she said, “I’ve some news for you.” Her assumptions had not been entirely correct: She did some snooping after his visit and came across a cache of nearly a hundred somewhat battered volumes that had outlived their usefulness and been replaced over the years. “Quite a number of them seem to have been very popular with younger readers – Kidnapped, The Red Badge of Courage, Kipling, and that sort of thing. I thought perhaps –”
“Perfect! They’d be perfect!”
“Well, I thought they might, so I’ve had a word with the librarian and he says you’re welcome to them. And that, in turn, inspired me to make a few other inquiries . . . .” All she had really done, she said, was to mention his request to her father, who was “associated,” as she put it, with the General Electric plant, Pittsfield’s largest employer, and her mother, who was active in the local women’s club and had been president for a number of years of the Pittsfield home-and- school association. Both of them agreed the book program would provide an excellent means for improving the chilly relationship between the camp and the town, and so they mobilized. The following week – “pending your approval” – collection bins were to be placed at every entrance gate to the G.E. complex as well as at the Crane and Eaton paper plants, all the public and parochial schools, the post office, and England Brothers department store. “And the women’s club plans to canvass door to door in the better neighborhoods.” She paused for a breath. “I’m afraid my folks are rather irrepressible once they get their teeth into a thing.”
The collection drive was to be announced by a story in the Berkshire Eagle as soon as Toby presented himself at the newspaper offices for an interview. The only quid pro quo being asked was that he or the commanding officer or anyone else from the camp who was marginally articulate make themselves available over the winter months to address area groups wishing to learn what it was exactly the C.C.C. was doing to their hills.
“You drive a tough bargain, Miss Keyes. I’m afraid I’ll have to consult the camp commander about all this.”
“Oh, dear,” she said. “And I hoped you’d be pleased.”
“Only ecstatic, Miss Keyes.”
Sparhawk, predictably, was less so. He had been attending the goldfish bowl beside his desk in company headquarters when Toby reported Miss Keyes’ offer. “We don’t accept charity, Mr. Ronan,” he said. “This is an installation of the United States government. And the fact is, the townspeople have been unkind to us in the past, and I’m not the sort to go begging for further favors.”
“No one’s begging for anything, sir. This is a spontaneous gesture of gratitude for what we’re doing out here.”
“They haven’t the vaguest notion what we’re doing, Ronan, so don’t hand me any snake oil. Besides, you initiated the thing by soliciting the local library in the camp’s name – and without my approval – which happens to be a definite breach of regulations.”
“It never occurred to me that you might possibly object – since the C.E.A. is specifically invited to draw upon the resources of surrounding communities for teaching materials –”
“With the C.O.’s approval, Mr. Ronan. Shall I quote you chapter and verse? What you teach and the materials you use require my permission.”
“But I was under the impression we agreed the other day that books were basic. So I thought we’d start by building a presentable library.”
“I don’t recall discussion of anything that grandiose.”
“I’m afraid I don’t really understand, sir, what your reservations are about books. Reading is an excellent recreation for the men. It occupies their minds and their time constructively. It keeps them out of mischief – and away from Pittsfield. And it’s been clinically proven, I believe, that mental stimulation is at least as fatiguing as the physical sort, so strictly as a device of behavioral control, reading is every bit as useful as baseball or swimming.”
The collective force of this epistemologically stunning argument occupied Sparhawk for a moment or two as he bent closer to examine the pair of resident goldfish, which were exhibiting every sign of ingratitude at the captain’s introduction of their eighth meal of the day. The white of his eye, ghoulishly distended to Cyclopean proportion by the liquid prism, loomed unblinking over the tiny porcelain castle at the bottom of the bowl and sought to drive the finny denizens from hiding. “I wonder if they’re overfed,” he murmured.
“I wouldn’t know, sir.”
“Odd – you seem to know so many things.” He pinched one last granule from the little box of fish food and let it flutter to the already filmy surface. “Well,” he said, “let’s call a spade a spade, Mr. Ronan. Leaving aside the method of accumulation, I’m concerned about what sorts of trash are likely to find their way in here if you were to expand the book collection. These are impressionable young fellows –”
“Oh, sure, sir, but they’ll cultivate a taste for the better things once they get into the reading habit. My own opinion is that almost any book is better than none.”
“It’s not their taste I’m concerned about, Ronan – it’s their politics.”
“I don’t want the comrades preaching to them. Red literature is the last thing we need around here. Are you aware labor organizers have infiltrated some camps, trying to foment strikes?”
“I hadn’t heard that, sir. But I can assure you I wasn’t planning to import any foreign social documents.”
“They have plenty of domestic allies.”
“Yes, sir. And that’s why I was hoping you might be able to spare me a little time to sift over whatever came in from the town so between us we could weed out any objectionable titles.”
“Hmmmm,” he said, “I suppose that’s a possibility.”
He phoned Temple Keyes back and asked if he might repay her kindness by taking her to lunch when he finished his session at the newspaper the next day.
“That won’t be necessary, Mr. Ronan – it’s a civic gesture, not a personal one, as I’m sure you understand. Thanks just the same, though.” She was expert at imbuing her voice with an institutionally impersonal quality.
“Oh, you’re welcome – Miss Keyes.”
He wondered why she limped. The subject had not engaged him before then. No doubt tile affliction limited tier social life and outlook.
It was not much of a limp, actually, and she had no shortage of compensating features. Perhaps she knew. What she definitely did not know was that he was A Harvard Man. That might have changed her tune – and tone. He resolved to drop the fact in passing when he visited the Eagle.
The books were gathered in an intensive one-week drive and brought to the camp the following Saturday afternoon in piles of a dozen or so, each well secured with twine – four hundred of them. A convoy of delivery trucks, volunteered by Pittsfield merchants, pulled up in front of the camp gate but was required to disgorge their gifts on the edge of the lawn. The adjutant, in charge as usual during the captain’s weekend visit home, would not permit the trucks to proceed directly to the steps of the Rec – no outside vehicles were allowed in the compound.
Until well past twilight, a human chain operated, with Toby at the head and Eddie Spain at the delivery end on the Rec porch, handing the books across two hundred yards of turf. At the close of the pointless ordeal, what they had to show were raw hands and, according to a later advisory from Corcoran at corps headquarters, the biggest C.C.C. library in all New England. Nesbit won an oak leaf cluster for obstinacy by refusing to let them stack the books indoors, claiming they would take up too much space. Toby was mercifully permitted, however, to shield the books against the damp with tarpaulins until their ultimate disposition – a bonfire was the adjutant’s apparent choice – could be determined.
Toby’s plan to avoid mass ruin of the homeless library was to work all day Sunday building shelves against the long back wall of the Rec to surprise Captain Sparhawk with a fait accompli on his return. Ash Cummings called a lumberyard owner he knew and arranged for Joe Calabrese to make a special pickup in exchange for a full-grown pine, to be taken out of the forest some time during the week following. “So long as everybody’s bein’ so goddamned charitable,” said Ash, “I’ll even take the tree down myself.” When Toby expressed his appreciation, the superintendent said it was the least he could do for staying out of his way after the first day.
Will Bassett lined up a couple of other Lems willing to sacrifice a day off to help him put up the shelving on a crash basis, and Toby set Eddie Spain to alphabetizing the books on the tarpaulins they spread out over the campus grass. All was in readiness for the wood when Nesbit caught up with the pell-mell arrangements and squelched them. “I can’t authorize a major piece of carpentry,” he said. “That’s up to the captain.”
The captain, Toby argued, had already approved the installation -- “in principle” – when he authorized the book collection. “You don’t think he intended for them to be left outside to rot, do you?”
“I don’t think he expected the camp to be turned into a branch of the public library, either. You’re just going to have to wait for him.”
“If we don’t get the shelves up and the books indoors today, it’ll have to wait till next weekend. A lot of them could be mildewed by then.”
“That’s not my concern.”
“What is your concern, lieutenant – besides making sure everyone around here has his fly buttoned straight?”
The outburst was an indulgence he rued the instant it escaped him. All he had done was to encourage the bean-eyed zealot’s dementia for orthodoxy.
Sparhawk returned to camp in a mellow mood, as was his Sunday evening wont. “Good Lord!” he boomed upon inspecting his new, badly jumbled, and unexpectedly enormous library. “I thought they were going to clear out a few attics around Pittsfield – not ship us the entire contents of Harvard’s main reading room.” The outpouring pleased him even more than had the appearance of his picture beside the newspaper story on the book drive (along with casual mention of his Harvard-educated teaching aide).
“What bothers me,” he said after Toby sketched out the carpentry plans for the shelving, “is taking down a healthy pine. I don’t think it’s an honorable way to use the forest.”
“What way, sir?” Toby asked, accepting more of the captain’s prime brandy.
“For our personal pleasure.”
Toby swirled the brandy about and studied the birch logs crisping in the fireplace. “We do it all the time, sir – out of necessity.” He nodded toward the flames.
“Yes, but we try to take out just the scrub.”
“The principle’s the same, though, sir. I think the relationship between the camp and the forest can truthfully – and morally – be described as symbiotic. Each side has to give as well as get.”
“Well,” he said, “I suppose there’s something to that.”
“Balance of nature, sir.”
He ordered the Rec closed for the next two nights while Will Bassett and his crew, supplemented by half a dozen enrollees, installed the shelves amid much belching and lowing from the pool-shooters and ping-gong set. As the finishing touches were being applied, Toby proposed (1) to send a letter of thanks, over the captain’s signature, to the townspeople via the Eagle editorial page; (2) to invite their photographer to camp to snap the finished and filled bookshelves – and while he was at it, a shot or two of the new picnic sites, the firebreaks, and the mountain road with its access to Berry Pond, and (3) to advise Corps Area headquarters of the camp’s fresh cultural bent by sending them the news clippings. Only the last caused Sparhawk to hesitate. “I’m not much for tooting our own horn,” he said.
“I was thinking of couching it in terms of our gratitude for community recognition.”
“Yes,” he said, “I think that would be the way.” Then, with the glum tenacity of a Watch and Warder, he added, “And you and I can begin reviewing the titles one at a time in the morning.”
“I thought Eddie and I might get them in place first, sir – so they don’t get knocked around any more than necessary.”
“Oh, right – good thought. Let me know, though, when you’re ready.”
Toby promised. Fast talk was becoming his mother tongue.
©2017 Richard Kluger