Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Reading Between the Lines

“One World, Many Stories” is this year’s Wisconsin Summer Library Program theme. Many of our colleagues have been making the rounds of area elementary schools in recent weeks, visiting individual classrooms to promote summer reading at the public library.

I admire the children’s librarians who possess enough self-confidence to deliver the pitch without needing the camouflage crutch of a goofy costume. During the 27 summers that job was mine at the Rhinelander District Library, I found it much more comfortable to hide behind a character and costume that matched the theme.

The last “Reading Between the Lines” told the story of the year I almost got arrested as Super Librarian. Some other incarnations were as a raccoon, ringmaster, antique car driver, rock ‘n’ roll queen, gorilla chasing zookeeper, fisherwoman, tacky tourist, reading coach, Captain Book the pirate, and frontierswoman Sally Ann Thunder Whirlwind Crockett.

During the “Readlicious” summer of 1990, I spent three days in a rented chicken suit that reeked of cigars and lost 10 pounds being chased through the school district by library assistant Kay Pohnl, who was dressed as a meat clever wielding chef.

The Children’s Department traveling road show began in 1974 when the theme was “Yankee Doodle Rides Again.” I impersonated Doodle while our two high school pages, Cheryle Zettler and Arlene Warmouth alternated as the front and back ends of my faithful horse.

Cheryle literally should have quit while she was a head. During the next eleven years, she portrayed a burglar, a creature called The Whangdoodle, and a hodag among many others.

In 1978 for “Star Worlds at the Library” Cheryle played straight woman to my character of a lost space traveler named Koob (book spelled backwards). Covered head to toe by a hooded metallic fabric suit with gloves and boots, my identity and voice were further disguised behind a tinfoil-lined fencing mask.

Our skit called for me to suddenly enter a classroom or school library, interrupt Cheryle’s discourse on summer library fun and snatch a book to use as fuel for my disabled spacecraft. A bumbling attempt to “freeze” her with my finger when she thwarted the booknapping resulted in freezing myself instead. This allowed her to finish her speech while I stood motionless for a time before gradually thawing to deliver the exit line, “Take me to your library!”

One afternoon found us waiting for the first three grades from West Elementary School to assemble in their small basement library. I was hiding in a closet in the far corner of the room opposite the only exit where Cheryle was stationed. Excitement crackled in the air as weary teachers exhorted their charges to squeeze closer together so everyone could sit on the floor.

My sudden appearance was greeted by a tumultuous response. “Star Wars” had just been released and interest in all things galactic was at a fever pitch. As I waded through a sea of up-turned faces and reaching hands to a point about six feet from the door, I realized this was something more than the ordinary chemical reaction to our antics. Tiny hairs began standing up on the back of my neck.

The children started poking the calves of my legs as I stood frozen, then progressed to pinching my space creature bottom and delivering surreptitious karate chops to the backs of my shiny knees while I thawed. At my first step toward the exit several kids leaped for each leg and clung to my boots like sucking mud, dragging me down to the floor.

“Good grief!’ I thought, “They’re playing for keeps!”

The scene took on the texture of a South American soccer stadium riot as thirty children tried to rip the silver suit from my body to see what was inside. I was unable to defend myself because I couldn’t see anything and feared ending up unconscious in the middle of the floor clad in nothing but my underwear!

Until the day I check into that great library in the sky, I will never forget the look of pure ghoulish glee on the face of one blond-haired cherub who seized the opportunity (while I was momentarily pinned on the linoleum) to press his nose against the mesh of the fencing mask and gaze deeply into my panic-stricken eyes.

Fear gave me strength. Shaking the children off like a grizzly bear being pestered by a pack of beagles, I somehow regained my feet and charged for the exit, shouting, “TAKE ME TO YOUR LIBRARY!!!”

Cheryle and those teachers who realized I was genuinely in trouble had been unable to reach me or be heard above the melee. Now she and I fled across the hall to the furnace room, closed the metal door and put our backs to it until library aide Gerrie Martini sounded the all clear.

“Dear Space Creature,” began one of the many apologies delivered to my desk by day’s end, “We are sorry that we pushed you kicked you pinched you tripped you and shoved you and we will never ever do that again and if we do you can send us to the prinsibel (sic)!” The colorful spaceships decorating the letters proved it was worth a few bruises to capture the imagination of a room full of young readers.

We had a wonderful summer.

1 comment: