So this post presents a personal case.
I attended a funeral today of a man who was important in my life. A friend of my parents from before I was born, he and his family were a presence in my life throughout my formative years. It is a sad thing that such a good man is no longer with us, but as the Presbyterian minister stated at the service, he lived a life worth living.
In high school back in the ‘80s, this man made available for me a job as a “security guard” at the Rosenberg Library in Galveston, TX—the library which he thoughtfully and dutifully led for over 30 years. As the head of the library he may have never had anything immediately to do with the security guards on a day to day basis, but he provided me with the chance to work there when I needed it.
This security job meant primarily walking around making sure that youth younger than my own 18 years of age weren’t horsing around in the museum aspects of the third floor of the great (or at least great to me) library.
You can imagine the authority that I made demonstrable—I was a skinny kid in a jackass blue uniform. I had no stick, gun or even flashlight—after all, this was a library. I just walked around looking at all the interesting things contained in this place, hoping that I never had to deal with any irascible people. As such, I must have I looked like an idiot, and such looks weren’t entirely deceiving. Luckily, in my time of service to the library I never once had to deal with any major problems. The worst problem was dealing with a homeless man simply looking for a quiet place where he could rest his head, and I didn’t have to deal with that situation by myself.
My beat was the third floor of the library, which contained an immense archive of Galvestoniana documents (and to this day, it is a great resource for writers who wish to write about Galveston—writers like Erik Larson) as well as an extensive rare books room. I got to know the librarians well.
The third floor also contained beautifully intricate and detailed ship models under glass display, many dark oil paintings of old Galveston’s founders, and a room containing the personal library of one of Galveston’s best who was unfortunately killed in Vietnam. This young man was extraordinarily well read. With comfortable leather chairs, the lamp lit room dedicated to him was lined with shelves of what was billed to be his own personal collection of books. Each day the librarians would put the latest magazines and newspapers in that room. It was a great hiding spot for me.
As far as my memory can recollect, the young man’s collection didn’t contain Cicero or Plutarch, but I remember undisturbedly reading a beat up copy of Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle while lazing in one of the room’s plush chairs. I read other books mainly on history—one of which I remember was Eric F. Goldman’s The Crucial Decades (keep in mind that I was only 18 years old). I also remember devouring the New York Times and Time magazine each day or week. All the while I was hiding out from whatever work I was supposed to be doing, but as a security guard my presence alone was work. What a great thing it is to wear a uniform.
But this confession doesn’t bode well for my future of being a security guard. At the time, I was a slacker lost in his imagination. I couldn’t believe I was being paid minimum wage to read, even if looking back, my reading choices weren’t always the best. I was lost in the solitude of reading while on the job—all the while wearing a silly blue uniform. Luckily for me, in regard to the actual assessment of my security guard job skills, but to the detriment of many who may have had an enlightening experience if they had only ventured to the third floor, no one ever went to this part of the library.
In this place I could read and still think that I was part of what held up a wall against any philistinism that would attempt to violate the quiet grandeur of what the history of Galveston in its archives and rare books contained. It may be silly, but then getting paid minimum wage to read books when one is 18 years old ain’t a bad gig, and this man and the library he led and the town which made this library possible are irreplaceable factors in both making and preserving important things like the opportunity to read good (or not so good) books in quiet solitude. I remember that time as a security guard as especially good, and even if it was 20 years ago, I owe that good memory to this man—a recently departed family friend.
So I was reminded of all this while sitting through his funeral service. At 43 years of age, I was the youngest person—apart from the family—in the church. I felt a bit the outsider because I could not express how I missed those wonderful formative years (including the time spent as a security guard).
I agreed with the minister when he stated in a way which downplayed any notion that this man ever thought he was distinctively representative of virtue (as this man would have always denied for himself) that nonetheless “maybe there was a saint amongst us.”
He surely provided me with an opportunity for reflection and reading when I was young.
BTW—I should say that our families were friends in many other situations and circumstances. I only mention this story because it was my own personal connection to him.