When I was a boy living on a Kansas farm, there were only two good reasons to interrupt a warm summer day and meander to town. One was Safeway glazed donuts cooling on metal racks. The other was the old library on Chestnut Street. The Safeway had air-conditioning; not so with the library. Luckily for me, the children’s books were relegated to the basement where it was at least ten degrees cooler. As I tumbled down the stairs–nearly out of control and taking two steps at a time while clinging to an old metal rail– the first thing that would hit me would be the smell of old books: humid, musty and wise; the smell of adventure waiting to be uncovered.
The Olathe, Kansas library was built in 1909 with $10,000 of grant money from Andrew Carnegie. Not surprisingly, it was called the Carnegie Building. With very little programming within the reach of our television antennae and video games still decades away, there were limited places for a young boy to find adventure. I created it myself or I read about it.
The very first books at the bottom of the library steps were written by Walter Farley. I don’t think I ever ventured any further. There was no need. I had found the Black Stallion. Not much else matters once you’ve discovered Alex Ramsey and the Black Stallion. Walter Farley’s books were pure magic. They brought much joy and pleasure to my young life.
As much as I loved these books, I fear my own horses, if they could have read as voraciously as they grazed, would have despised every story Walter Farley wrote. One horse in particular, Black we called him, suffered the most in Farley’s hands. He was a tall, half-Arabian, all black gelding. I say was because after I finished the black stallion books, he was transformed into something else entirely different from a gentle farm horse. Now he was The Black and spent most summer days removed from the green pastures where he peacefully grazed, saddled over his objections, and raced around farm fields at breakneck speeds with an 11-year old boy clinging to his flowing mane and whispering into his ears. “Run Black. You can win. I know you can win! ” As I recall, he always did.
I may not have been Alec Ramsey, but I sure felt like it.
Ours was a middle class family, so for me (or any other child) to own a book was a rare treat. Being able to jump down the library stairs empty-handed and trudge back up 30 minutes later loaded down with an arm full of books was nothing short of a miracle of generosity–the most worthy extension of credit ever devised by man.
Like my Black, I don’t think my parents cared that much for Walter Farley either. Once I was home with a load of his books, there was no coming up for air for days on end. I had to be told twice to come down for dinner or to do much else for that matter.
By the 1960’s the Carnegie building was considered old-fashioned and although no one thought it mattered much to an 11-year old boy, a piece of our hometown history was about to be leveled. As so often happens to children, I drove by it one day and it had disappeared; a blighted building erased from the landscape by something called urban renewal. A place I loved was just gone. Some adult casually explained that the library had moved down the street to a new, larger and (I’m sure) fully air-conditioned building.
Today my law office looks out over Chestnut Street. There is—like the song predicted—a parking lot where the Carnegie building once stood. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished I could still run down those stairs empty-handed and return with an armful of adventure ready to be devoured. Perhaps, at my age, it’s best that I don’t. At least the horses are very happy about it.
Greg Kincaid, the author of A Dog Named Christmas and Christmas with Tucker, still lives in rural Kansas. His most recent book, A Christmas Home, was just released by Crown. Todd, the hero of a Dog Named Christmas, is now five years older and happily employed at the local animal shelter where his girl friend Laura volunteers. Funding shortfalls force the closing of the shelter before year-end. Todd must find new work, homes for thirty dogs and a way to protect his emerging relationship with Laura. A tall task to be sure. Fortunately for Todd, he has some very capable canine assistance. The New York Journal of Books calls A Christmas Home “A heartwarming read…well written and uplifting. “ Library Journal says, “Dog lovers and anyone looking for a heartwarming Christmas story will enjoy Kincaid’s latest. “