Wednesday, April 9, 2014

451 (A Book Burning)

Books, especially old ones, burn very quickly when they are thrown on a fire.  As each one curls up, cover and pages, in the flames, it dies. It is a tragedy to me.

When I was in college I took a communications class. I wrote a paper on what happened during the McCarthy era when writers, actors and directors were being suppressed because they were thought to be Communists and refused to name names of their so called “fellow travelers.” My professor as a final project gave me the assignment of attending a book burning and writing about it. Based on my earlier paper he wanted my perspective on that. There was one to be held in one of the rural towns near Champaign. I didn’t have a car but a friend of mine in the dorms did, so on the night when it was to happen he took me out into the country and dropped me off.  We agreed that I would meet him back in their town center after he went to his hometown, not far away from there, to visit with his brothers and neighbors.

 The people in the town built a bonfire out in a field near a church. It was huge and fueled by gasoline.  It was a cool night and I kept my hands mostly in the pockets of the army jacket I had bought from a surplus store when I did an internship in Washington DC.  As I talked to the people who came out for the event they seemed on the surface very nice. At first I couldn’t imagine how these welcoming people could have a fear or hatred of literature. My expectation was that the burning would not go through.   Then the vans arrived.

Men approached the bonfire carrying crates of books they had taken from the school and the little library in town.  Suddenly the people became rabid.  They reached in and started throwing books on the fire like these cloth-covered and paperback works were kindling.  I saw copies of books by Mark Twain, Judy Blume, and J.D. Salinger being blazed. Anything they had an objection to…The Wizard of Oz, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Go Ask Alice, The World According to Garp…were all fodder for their fire.  It was then I lost my cool. I stopped being an objective observer and a writer. I became an angry protester.

 I got very nasty and antagonistic. I started shouting for them to stop.  With tears in my eyes, I shoved a couple of people.  Very quickly there was a man in a uniform, by my side. He grabbed my arms and held them behind my back. He said “It is time for you to go, son.” He cuffed me, walked me to his sheriff’s squad car, and put me in the back seat.  He took off the cuffs and asked for my ID.  I gave him my driver’s license and my student card from the University of Illinois.  He got on his radio and checked me out, but otherwise said nothing to me.  When he was finished, he said, “Thomas, I am not arresting you tonight. I just took you out of there more for your own protection. It is an ugly situation already and you being there would have made it a lot uglier.”  I said what my father always told me you should say if you end up in the back of a squad car and might get out of going to jail, “Thank you, officer.” This was the second of four times I found myself having to say that to a uniformed man. I think I have figured out now how to be a little less reckless in the way I express myself and my opinions.

The officer said to me, “Let me take you to your car so you can get out of here.”  I told him that I didn’t have a car and that I was supposed to meet my friend by the courthouse in town in an hour or so. He shook his head and said, “Thomas, town is kind of a far walk. You didn’t plan this very well, did you?” I looked down at my shaking legs and said, “No, sir.”  He laughed and said, “Well, my shift is almost over. I’ll take you into town.”  He started the car, flipped it into gear, and turned on all of his lights.  He said from the front seat, “Now everyone will think good things about me.” He winked.

When we got into town he stopped at the courthouse and let me out of the car. It was way early for me to meet my friend. The officer opened his window and I asked him “Is there a place nearby where I can get a cup of coffee?” He nodded and said, “Yes, there is a place on the other side of the square. That’s where I’m going too. I’ll see you in there.”  I cut across the lawns of the rural house of justice and went into a diner that was lit up.  I sat down at the counter and ordered some French fries with gravy and a coffee. Not long after I got my food the officer came in.

He sat down at the counter beside me and took his hat off.  The girl behind the counter served him without him ordering.  Her nametag said, Deb.  She asked the officer, “Cal, do you want your book?” He replied, “No, not right away.”  She touched his hand and walked away. It was uncomfortable sitting there with the man who had recently handcuffed me. I finally asked, “So, what are you reading?” He said, “Just a mystery book I picked up. I keep them here so that when I have time they are where I am. Do you know who John D. McDonald is?” I said, “Yes. My mother collects mystery books.  She has several hundred. He is one of her favorites. My aunt, Sandy, likes him too because all of his books are set in Florida.”  He grinned and said, “That’s why I like him too.  They’re not deep but they’re good brain candy….What do you read?” I had to think for a minute. “Well, I read a lot of books for class but I really like Steinbeck and Faulkner.”  Cal sat silent for minute and then he said, “You’re a university kid so you probably read a lot heavier than I do, but I did see a copy of Grapes of Wrath going into the fire tonight and that kind of bothered me. That was one of the books I had to read in high school. It was one that really…mattered… to me. I can’t imagine why they objected to it … or maybe I can. Sad.” I asked “So then why did you let them do it?”  He sighed. “I have to live in this town and I work for them. I don’t have to like what they do, but…”

Me and the officer talked for awhile longer and then suddenly he said, “There is an old blue Ford circling outside. Is that maybe your ride?”  I leapt up from my seat. “Yes, that is my friend, Vern. I have to go.”  I looked at my tab and put some money on the counter. As I put my jacket on, the officer said, “It was nice meeting you, Thomas. My name is Calvin.” I shook his hand and again said, “Thank you.”  He asked, “Did you tip your waitress? I have to ask on account of she is my wife.” I laughed, nodded yes, and ran out to flag down Vern.

Later that night when we got back to the dorm I told the guys I shared rooms with about what happened at the book burning. I told them about how angry I got. My friend, David, said, “I am not surprised. I had my money on you being in jail. I know how you feel about books and censorship.” The next day I went to my professor and I told him that I didn’t think I could write an objective story about the book burning.  He said “Then don’t.  Write a personal story about what you experienced and how it made you feel. Just be honest.  I want to see what you come up with.”

I wrote that story 30 some years ago and got a pretty good grade on it. I wrote it again tonight. Still feels like the first time; I still feel the anger I did before. I think, though, I told the story better now.  Words are powerful but they never killed anyone like sticks, rocks, guns, and bombs.  You can ban or burn a book but you can’t burn away the stories and ideas contained in them.  Words, even if we don't like them, deserve respect.  Our expression through language has meaning and is part of what makes us who we are.