Estimated reading time: 5 minutes, 28 seconds.
The pristine island of St. John in the Virgin Islands, the majestic Three Sisters in the Blue Mountains of Australia, the picturesque Resurrection Bay in Alaska, the artistic Montmartre overlooking Paris, and the iconic Villa Cipriani in Asolo, Italy, are five of the many enchanting places of my life.
But they are not the five MOST enchanting places. That distinction belongs to five buildings, only one of which still exists. The magic of these buildings is what made me who I am.
The first, the best, the most wonderful, the most enchanting, because it was my gateway to reading, was the library at East Lake Elementary in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The school building was built in 1926 and it was already 42 years old when I first walked to school that fateful day from our little three-room house on 5th Avenue. As a scrawny boy, I mounted those tall concrete steps and pushed through the heavy and tall entrance doors. It was red brick with huge windows in every classroom. I remember the noisy steam radiators that would rattle and burn if you touched them. And the big old auditorium with a high stage where I was presented the Bible award for the entire six grades.
But most of all, I remember the library. Like all such schools, it was a world in itself, which meant it had its own librarian. As a repressed, misfit boy who had no friends (I attended 12 schools in 12 grades, so I never had time to make friends, and no one wanted to be around a religious freak anyway), the library provided a perfect escape. No one was ever there except me. It was a safe place away from the bullies, a haven of faraway places, forbidden fantasy and wild imaginings.
Up until then, my reading had consisted of Hardy Boys mysteries, the Holy Bible, and assorted classics we would find at second-hand shops. I vividly remember—somewhere around age 8—reading “Aesop’s Fables” and “Grimm’s Fairy Tales,” and then discovering Homer’s “Iliad,” the “Odyssey,” and “Helen of Troy.” I couldn’t get enough Greek and Roman mythology.
That library bewitched me, especially the 920 section. If you know your Dewey Decimal Classification System—you’ll recognize that 920 was the biography section. I started on the left and read every last one of those biographies with cloth orange covers in less than a year. Lincoln, Washington, Adams, Crockett, Custer and more.
No matter how horrible the day and how cruel and mean the big boys were, there was something about the scent of old books that perked up this fledgling bookworm. One day in sixth grade wandering the shelves with hundreds of old books amid the smell of must and smoke and earth, I spied a green cloth cover with gold engraving. The title was “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand.
In Greek mythology, Atlas was a Titan condemned to hold up the celestial heavens for eternity, so the name of this book grabbed my attention. I found an old reading table and turned to page one and read “Who is John Galt?” It had nothing to do with mythology, but I was hooked. The librarian shook me several hours later and said she was closing. I ran home, hid away in the corner of my closet and read the entire book in the next three days and then turned back to page one and read it again.
I had never encountered anything like this and that week I fell head over heels in love with Dagny Taggert—mid-thirties, brunette, slim, beautiful legs, supreme self-confidence—she was my perfect woman. And I was fiercely jealous of her lovers Francisco d’Anconia and Hank Rearden. I wanted to be John Galt and I wanted to live in Galt’s Gulch. Already a voracious and well-read reader, I instantly grasped the parallels with Atlantis and Shangri-La. And I, gasp, wanted to smoke one of those mysterious cigarettes with the dollar sign. This book allowed me to explore taboos such as making love, smoking, drinking, and cursing.
It’s ironic, that at age sixty, I have yet to smoke a cigarette, but my Galt’s Gulch dream never died and has found reality at my mountain retreat called Kalien.
At that library in East Lake, I encountered Andre Norton’s “Catseye,” which initially formed my desire to fight for the underdog, or cat, and whoever else is downcast in society despite species, skin, fur, or colors and to make things right for them. It was not until years later I found out to my surprise that both Andre Norton and Ayn Rand were women.
That transcendent room was demolished two years ago, but the spell it wove into my life will never fade. Science fiction became my drug. Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, and Vance all stoked my imagination and forever broadened the expanse of my dreams. But it was Heinlein, who many call the best science fiction writer in existence, who stirred up my fantasies.
“Red Planet” was proof that Heinlein believed that juvenile readers were far more sophisticated and able to handle more complex or difficult themes than most people realized at that innocent time. He constantly had to fight censors. In the science fiction section, I devoured the controversial “Stranger in a Strange Land,” a critique of religion, which only two years later was censored and removed from America’s school libraries. And later I read “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” which addressed the unthinkable themes of free love, blasphemy, individualism, and libertarianism.
Lusting for anything Heinlein, I then checked out a book from that elementary school library that would forever change my views of sexuality. “I Will Fear No Evil” is a story about an elderly dying rich man’s brain transplanted into the body of his sexy and risque female secretary, at which point he starts hearing her seductive voice in his head, and at her urging immediately starts acting like a girl, kissing and making out with everyone. You must read it to fully understand how this would affect an adolescent boy. The Playboy magazines in my friend’s clubhouse down the alley paled in comparison. This book also introduced me for the first time to the term reluctant agnostic.
Heady themes for a sixth-grade kid. I sincerely doubt that the principal Mr. Gandy knew those books were in his library, and I’m thankful because that huge room of books became my enchanted sanctuary. It helped create wonder in my life—a world of groks, waldos, and chortles where I could jet to Mars and be a millionaire, and escape the world for Mulligan’s Valley. And though my teachers, preachers, and parents tried their best—they were never able to educate, church, or spank out of my soul the magic that was formed in that enchanting room of books in East Lake. Even though the building is gone, it will forever live in my memory.