Margaret Symmank has enjoyed a life-long career of writing and entertaining audiences. Her work has seen production on school, college, church and community theatre stages for over thirty years. Ms. Symmank is a member of the American Association of Community Theatres, Christians in Theatre Arts, and Texas Nonprofit Theatres. She lives with her husband, J.D., in south Texas. They have four children and five grandchildren.
Margaret Symmank will be appearing with ANTHEM performing artists in a performance of her play An Odor of Sanctity; or...Something Smells in the Pews on Wednesday, March 14th at 7pm in the Friendswood Public Library Activity Room.
TICKET TO RIDE
In the summers I never went much farther than I could walk. I walked to the store for jawbreakers and comic books, to Bible school, where I sang, “Roll away, roll away, roll away – every burden of my heart roll away,” and every two weeks, I walked to the bookmobile.
The road that led to the store and Bible school and the bookmobile ran three-quarters of a mile from our house to the post office – a narrow, rock-topped, too-hot-for-bare-feet piece of county right-of-way parallel to the Santa Fe Railway.
From the road, I waved to accommodating engineers who traveled the rails from Galveston to Houston and Lord only knew where beyond that. Very far, I was certain. The boxcars swayed along the tracks – clanking when empty, bumping when full – headed for places distant and dim. Roll away, roll away, roll away.
I’d been to Galveston for Christmas shopping, sampled the wonders of the candy counter in Sears, and roamed the endless, shell-spattered beaches in summer. I’d seen Houston a time or two. It was fast and noisy, and people wore their Sunday clothes no matter what day it was. I knew I wasn’t ready for that. Maybe someday – when I knew things. Knowing things came from books, and books came from the bookmobile.
It was an awesome creation. Huge and square and green and tan, it parked itself in the shade by the post office two Wednesdays a month. It had wheels and doors that opened like a school bus but bore no other resemblance to that very distant kin. Inside, it was a room. Not a vehicle at all, but a real place with shelves of books all the way to the ceiling, and lights and a tiny oscillating fan that stirred the dim air breathed by all the visitors in all the other places the bookmobile stopped.
At one end of the room was a little set of steps that led up to the driver’s seat. There was no rail or chain to keep people from going up the steps and having a look around. Yet, such a trespass was unthinkable. The driver always walked over to the store for a Nu-Grape, then sat leaning against a sycamore trunk smoking Luckies while the line of applicants for library books snaked in one door of the bookmobile and out the other. Ten, maybe fifteen minutes was the limit allowed inside. The ever-present press of those behind, waiting their turn, frustrated the brief quarter-hour in the bookmobile world.
A sustained and reverent hush filled the small cavern, its walls bumpy with book spines. Visitors shuffled the length of the room, transfixed by titles, offering and receiving whispered counsel.
“If you’ll check out Anastasia for me this time, I’ll let you get a book on my card next time. If you get that one, don’t read it before you go to sleep, or you won’t.”
The books were there for the taking, but choosing was agony. Four. Only four at a time to keep for two weeks. One had to choose carefully. Trouble was, once the book had been read enough to know if it was the right one, there was little left to be read at home. Yet it was impossible to put the book back on the shelf half-read. Sometimes, the only thing to do was to act on blind faith, or maybe a word of wisdom from a fifth-grader whose name appeared on the checkout slip in the front pocket.
My selections made, I faced the trial of the checkout desk. The librarian sat behind it. Serious and graying, she embodied all the authority vested in her by the Galveston County Library System. She wore navy or brown, buttoned and cuffed even in August. She would sometimes stop, rubber stamp lifted in midair, and peer deep into my soul to determine if the book I had chosen was on my reading level. A second-grader dared not attempt to pass herself off as going into fourth.
There were two ways to walk home. I could trot along in the noontime heat on the dusty, narrow shoulder of the road – the quicker to arrive home and be at the tempting stories tucked under my arm. Or, I could start reading as I walked, stepping too high or too low over the uneven ground while the words bounced in and out of focus, stark against the glaring page. Neither choice was satisfactory.
The best stories happened far away, in places real or not so real. Places past the boundaries of the known world – beyond Houston or Galveston. Places somewhere along the distant reaches of the Santa Fe Railway – across the bumpy brown waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Albuquerque, Shangri-La, the moon. Places where possibilities were wonderfully frightening, where I might someday be plunked down to live out adventures and do great deeds millions of miles from chores or arithmetic or similar pressing problems.
My transport was simple and sure – long afternoons spent stretched on a quilt under the trees, lulled by the sway of leaf-filtered sunshine across the mesmerizing words on the page. Roll away, roll away, roll away. The effect was consistent, the results reliable. Every burden of my eight-year-old heart always rolled away.
By the time I could reach the top shelves without effort, standing head and shoulders above the better part of the bookmobile crowd, the summers had grown shorter. The world was miraculously reduced to a manageable list of continents and oceans suspended in a universe whose orbs I could comfortably name. The engineers on the trains rarely waved from their rocking cars, or at least, not that I noticed.
The books were thicker now. The far-away places named within their pages were unquestionably real and had come frighteningly close. Wounded Knee, Hiroshima, Auschwitz.
More frequently I rode instead of walked. With friends, with boys, or taking the wheel myself. Once, during a summer storm, when I drove past the post office, the somber, dark form of the bookmobile sat beneath the thrashing sycamores. Its doors were sealed against the rain. It glistened and seemed oddly small.
I don’t remember when the bookmobile stopped coming. The last summer before I drove away, over the railroad tracks to places very far and very real, I think it may have parked there by the post office once or twice.
Then the reading changed. It was now the means rather than the once glad end I’d come to know in summers past. I plowed through volumes etched with eye-squinting print – heavy, weighty, bound as though they meant business. Descartes, Kant, Nietzsche. Sometimes the heavy books would slip onto the floor unseen by eyes closed beneath lids every bit as heavy. In dreams I rode the bookmobile. Seated in the sacred seat, I steered along the railroad tracks, rocking off to some unnamed land, reading books on any level with wild abandon. Roll away, roll away, roll away.
Through the years, I’ve seen a bookmobile once or twice. Not mine. A sleeker, fuel-efficient model, air-conditioned, tinted windows, slipping through the traffic en route to some nameless little town. There must be children there. Lined up. Waiting. Waiting for the bookmobile to take them far away.
Copyright © 1992 Margaret Symmank