I gave a talk last week at the Port St. Joe Public Library. It got off to a horrible start. I was supposed to be speaking on the hurricanes of 1841 and ’44, and how they hastened the demise of the city of St. Joseph. But the moment I stepped through the door my mind immediately turned to Ira Hayes.
It always does. Every time! It’s not only libraries. Bookstores also send me rushing toward the Pima Indian who helped raise the American Flag on Iwo Jima during World War II. Shoot, I walk into a private home with a shelf filled with novels, poetry books, a few biographies…..and it’s the same. Ira Hayes means much more to me than just some soldier “doing his job” on that long-ago Friday afternoon on Mt. Suribachi.
It goes back to the fall of 1961. I’d just entered the ninth grade. Some educational genius in the McKenzie School System determined a “study hall” would be a brilliant way to help young students adjust to their first year in high school.
They didn’t think this thing through. Or they didn’t figure on guys like me and Ricky Hale, Larry Ridinger and Buddy Wiggleton. We were so cool we didn’t need to study. But if the school wanted to give us a free period…...carpe diem!
We’d spend the hour playing matchbox football and discussing what it would be like to kiss Jane Hill.
Everyday! Same routine. For a week.
Virginia Ingram, the faithful and kindly librarian, hauled us down to the office. Mr. Warren gave us the principal talk, “You are the future leaders of America. It starts in high school. You’ve got to make the most of ……”
We all said “yes sir” in unison and went back to the matchbox games and wondering about Jane Hill.
Mrs. Ingram let another week pass and called a coach over from the gym. He didn’t give a talk. He lined us up in the hall outside the library and gave us two licks apiece.
We strolled back into class and resumed the football games and the Jane Hill speculating. Mrs. Ingram didn’t say a word for a couple of days. I assumed she’d finally gotten the message…...
Until she leaned down close just as I was about to kick a field goal and whispered, “Kesley, this has gone on long enough. I’m not sending you back to the office or bothering the coach again. BUT if you don’t get up, find a book right now and immerse yourself in it so deeply that I BELIEVE you are reading it, when the 3:15 bell rings I’m marching directly to your house and telling your father how you sit here day after day wasting my time, your time and the school’s time!”
I jettisoned out of that seat like a rocket ship bound for outer space! Listen, my Dad didn’t take no prisoners in 1961. He didn’t question a teacher. He didn’t spare the rod. He didn’t say, “This is going to hurt me more than it does you.” And he didn’t give out licks. He whipped you till his arm fell off or the Sunday after next, whichever came first!
I landed over by the biography section. The first book I picked up had a soldier wearing a green jacket with multi colored ribbons and bronze stars stuck on it. Daddy had one just like it in the closet. I hurried back to my seat without a glance toward Buddy, Ricky or Larry. There was a time to be cool……and a time when your life was on the line!
I quickly discovered the man wearing the jacket was Ira Hayes. I learned he grew up poorer than we did. I read the amazing story of a humble Indian who became a quiet hero; and a tragic casualty of his own fame. It was the first book I ever read that I didn’t have a test on…..or had to turn in a “book report.”
It was reading for fun and enjoyment. What a marvel concept! And the incidental knowledge gained along the way wasn’t bad either.
And it was only the beginning! I read every Indian book in the McKenzie High School Library. And every cowboy book. And every Civil War book…. I discovered Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway and a million others. I was transported to the streets of Baltimore, the seedy underbelly of London and the snows of Kilimanjaro.
I’m telling you, it’s a wonderful ride that I’m still enjoying every single day of my life!
I have apologized profusely for my “divided” attention that led to the underwhelming start to last week’s library talk. But the plain truth is, without the unselfish help of Mrs. Ingram and Ira Hayes…..I wouldn’t have been there at all…..