A moment to rummage through my back pages

While living in Alaska, I once spent the night at the DEW line station in the Arctic near the village of Wainwright.

That would be one of the Distant Early Warning radar sites, a now-defunct remnant of the Cold War that once formed an arc across North America. I was doing articles on the region for the Anchorage Times. It was June 1984.

I didn't actually spend the "night," since the sun didn't set. But it was during the time when people normally slept. The Inupiat village is about 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle on the edge of the Chukchi Sea.

Inside the remote station was a reading room chock full of books. It was a book exchange not unlike many you would find in the Alaskan bush in those days. The rules were simple: You dropped off a book and left with another.

The book I picked up was "The Old Patagonian Express," by Paul Theroux. The title of the book I dropped off has long since faded from my mind.

What has not faded is the feeling of reading about the travels and travails of a talented writer wending his way to the southern tip of South America while I was near the top of North America.

We were literally poles apart on the planet but connected by words on paper. Since I was already a Theroux fan, it was like meeting up with an old friend.

With the 100th anniversary of the Ashland library being celebrated today, old reliable friends like Theroux, Austen, Steinbeck, Twain, Thurber, Bronte, Conrad, Salinger and countless others living in libraries have been on my mind.

Incidentally, there will be a cake during the celebration from noon to 4 p.m. And don't miss talented historian Jan Wright. Her presentation on the library's fascinating history begins at 2 p.m.

Now, of course, many of the words we read are on a screen. A different format, but no less captivating.

As a confirmed book/e-book worm, I've always been drawn to libraries, be they public, school or a simple book exchange. There is something about stepping into a room or building devoted to storing and sharing human thought that is both relaxing and rewarding.

Libraries and literature have formed a solid foundation while simultaneously guiding and enriching my life.

That relationship began as a youngster when our parents would take us to the Grants Pass library. I remember looking up at what seemed like endless rows of books and being filled with awe. And that was merely the children's section.

It was there I first glimpsed friendly folks like Charlotte, Eeyore and Peter Pan.

When we moved uptown to Kerby, I would check out a book from the Kerby Elementary School library nearly every Friday to have something to pore over on those rainy winter weekends. We had no television in the early 1960s. Books brought the world to our humble home.

Different teachers would step in to serve as the school's librarian. My favorite was Eileen Orton, a lady born in England who was always happy to recommend a good weekend read.

If the books weren't in the little Kerby library, they could always be found in the larger public library in Cave Junction.

She introduced me to a rich cast of characters — Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, Becky Thatcher, Walter Mitty, Nick Adams, Holden Caulfield and his kid sister, Phoebe. And let's not forget a fellow named Ishmael.

It wasn't until about the eighth grade that I tackled "Moby Dick." That tome took a month of Sundays to finish, but the voyage on the Pequod was well worth the effort. It's a whale of a tale, pun intended.

Since then I've been to a lot of libraries, the best of which has to be the library at the University of Oregon. It was there where I first learned of Hathaway Jones, a famed teller of tall tales on the lower Rogue River before the Ashland library was built.

Indeed, sometimes old friends pop up in the oddest places.

Back in Kerby, a neighbor had loaned me a collection of his Zane Grey books. "Riders of the Purple Sage" and "Arizona Ames" were a fun read, albeit a little syrupy, even for a kid.

Unfortunately, he didn't have a copy of "The Rogue River Feud," one of Grey's books I really wanted to read.

Fast forward to 1970.

I was in the Marine Corps and stationed at Camp Pendleton in Southern California. The huge Marine Corps base had — probably still has — a very good library. Yep, pass the ammo and the authors.

On one particularly lonely weekend when I was confined to the base doing guard duty, I wandered over to the recreation room before going on duty. There were always a couple of books to be had. If they weren't being read, they were fair game.

You guessed it. On a reading table was a dog-eared copy of "The Rogue River Feud."

When I wasn't on duty, I was happily floating, fishing and feuding on the lower Rogue. The book made my weekend.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

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