by | Jan 25, 2017 | Gayle Lynds, The Writer's Life | 7 comments

The Council Bluffs, Iowa, Public Library, finished in 1905 & now a museum.

By Gayle Lynds:   I’m tall.  That’s for those of you whom I’ve not yet had the pleasure to meet.  Yep, five-foot-ten.  I love parades, theater seating, and looking for my husband because I can see over almost everyone’s heads.

I grew fast, eventually having to take my mother along to vouch that I wasn’t too old for folks to give me Halloween candy.  As fast as I grew, so did my love of reading.  Books were my friends, my teachers, my allies, my secret under-the-covers companions to ward off the evil hand that lived in the dark under my bed.

My mother, Marian Hallenbeck, loved books as much as I.  She introduced me to the Council Bluffs Andrew Carnegie Public Library before I could read.  We didn’t have money for books, but library cards were free.  My mother and the librarian were acquaintances.  Her name was Mildred Smock

Mildred was stylish.  Although she was thin, there was something sturdy about her, especially when she picked up a stack of hardbacks.  She had a good face, long fingers, and a brown bob that curled more than it bobbed.  She wore serviceable pumps and dark dresses with narrow little belts.  Her expression was serious.  To a child, she was intimidating.  It never occurred to me that her looks were merely her dust jacket, that there was far more inside.

Summers were grand.  The day after the last day of school, I’d ride the city bus downtown to the library.  With awe, I’d enter the Mark Twain Room of children’s literature.  The first time I returned the books I borrowed by myself, Mildred checked them closely for abuse.  Mildred followed the rules, and she expected everyone else to do so, too. 

She and I seldom talked, except when she’d stop me and put a book in my hands.  And then she was gone, while I’d be entranced by a new author or genre to follow.

I worked my way through the stacks, devouring novels, adventure tales, fantasies, and mysteries.  By the age of nine, thanks to Mildred, I went through a period of biographies and histories — Marco Polo, the Empress Josephine, Mozart, Madame Curie, the kings and queens of England.

William Campbell Gault at work.

Then I discovered the sports section and the novels of a fine writer who eventually became my friend — William Campbell Gault, of Santa Barbara.  From him I learned about baseball, football, hockey, soccer, and the life lesson that all great athletes must learn: never give up. 

When I was eleven, I got very lucky — a neighbor joined the Doubleday Book Club and gave me her books as she finished them.  The world of popular literature opened up to me with Pearl Buck, Graham Greene, Daphne Du Maurier, and James Michener.  I was riveted by the breadth of their stories.  So many interesting characters trying to solve problems, create new lives, and operate in cultures that were foreign and fascinating. 

I remember my mother discussing my latest reading habits with my Aunt Margaret, who was concerned about the sex in adult books. 

“Don’t worry,” my mother assured her.  “She won’t understand what’s going on.”

As every child knows, there’s power in eavesdropping.  After that conversation, I was suddenly interested in the sex scenes.  Thank you, Mom.

As I neared the age of twelve, I was almost five-feet-seven and looked like a teenager despite no makeup.  I kinda liked that, except I could no longer convince bus drivers and ticket-sellers at movie matinees that I was young enough to pay the kid price.

As soon as school was out that summer, I rode the bus through the June sunshine to the library and climbed the familiar granite steps.  I had that wonderful stirring in my stomach.  What great tales would I find?

In the children’s section, I walked up and down the aisles.  I’d read many of the books.  Devoured them, really.  But now all of them seemed somehow too familiar. 

I turned on my heel and left.  I wanted books like I’d been reading.  Adult books.  But there was a problem — Mildred of The Rules.  She knew I was too young to enter the adult stacks.

I spotted her at the card catalog, her back to me as she bent over, working.  I skirted the room and sneaked into the tall shelves packed with hard covers.  Oh, to be able to read every one!

Thus began my short life of crime. 

Avoiding Mildred, I checked out my prizes with other librarians, even though my library card was marked for the children’s section.  My tall height and teenager looks had its advantages.  For a month I sailed through. 

Then one day I set my latest choices before the young librarian at the checkout counter.

“Your card?”  She picked up the books.

As I handed it to her, Mildred’s voice sounded.  She was coming around the corner.  “Wait.  Is that Gayle again?” 

I felt a chill.  “Yes, Miss Smock.”

Her stride was purposeful.  Serious as always, she picked up the novels.  She examined them.  “What’s your telephone number?” 

I had no choice.  I had to give it to her.

She dialed and identified herself to my mother.  Then she did the unexpected, the shocking, the act of the book saint:  Mildred Smock winked at me. 

“Would you object if I gave Gayle an adult library card?” she asked my mother.

And that was that.  She’d been monitoring me all along and realized I wasn’t going back to the Mark Twain room.  Thank you, Miss Smock.

The great Mildred Smock in later years

While I grew up to be a writer, Mildred Smock continued on at the library, enriching people’s lives book by book.  She began as a clerk in 1941, rose to be director in 1957, and after more than a half century, retired in 1992.  Continuing to contribute to the community in numerous ways, she died in 2014, much lauded and much loved. Her extraordinary gifts continue to echo.

What season of the year do I like to write?  Summer, of course.  As June rolls around, I feel that wonderful stirring in my stomach.  I want to read a great tale.  But first, with patience and humility, I want to write one.  Thank you again, Miss Smock.

With this post, we Rogue Writers begin a series about seasons and how they affect us and our writing. Are there any topics you’d like us to address?  Please let us know!

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  1. Karna Bodman

    What a delightful story about how wonderful librarians like Mildred Smock monitor and encourage readers (of all ages, I'm sure). I certainly hope that after shepherding you from the children's to the adult book section, she later learned about your terrific writing career!

  2. Debi Huff

    What a great story, Gayle. I, too, spent a lot of time in the library as a youngster. (Many libraries have been built courtesy of my library fines!!!)I still go today but now I am fortunate enough to be able to buy many of the books that I want to read. I am glad that my reading passion (from my Mother) has been passed on to my daughter and any child I can come into contact with. I always give books or gift cards for books for presents.

  3. S. Lee Manning

    What a great tale and a sweet story of a woman dedicated to books. Librarians so seldom get their due. I remember the joys of exploring the library when I was young. Of course summer is the best season for writing, just as it's the best season for reading. Long lazy days, filled with sunlight.

  4. Meg

    What a beautiful story, Gayle. Thank you. We were rather pinched for funds when I was growing up, and my mother believed money should NEVER be wasted on purchasing books when there was a perfectly good library in town. (I begged for Nancy Drew books on Christmas and my birthday because my library wouldn't carry them – and thanks to my kind sister, I built up quite a little collection!) My town and school libraries made life bearable, and I am forever in debt to the wonderful librarians who staffed them.

  5. John Sheldon

    Great story, Gayle. It brings back memories of my own time in the local library when I was a kid! John

  6. Gayle Lynds

    Thank you everyone! Libraries unite us!

  7. Milly G

    Great story! Your youth sounds so much like mine. Spent every summer checking out stacks of books weekly from the Mark Twain Room, until at last I graduated to the Young Adult Room and those wonderful shelves of biographies. The only difference was that I was far too timid to risk bucking Mildred Smock's rules. I read my parents books until I could "legally" check out those YA books! And I loved sliding down the railing on the front steps. Oh, how I loved that library . . .