Short Stories

The Carnegie Library

from Down to Earth in Roswell      Dewey Johnson

Henry Hopkins loved the Carnegie Library. When he was in the sixth grade, he would spend Saturday afternoons there, determining which books he wanted to check out that week. Mrs. Lankford, one of the librarians, knew he liked adventure books and kept him informed of new arrivals.

Henry loved the thought of roping horses and sleeping out under the stars, like in Wylie and the Pecos Valley Ponies. He dreamed of sword fighting alongside Sir Lancelot, of saving Smokey the Bear from the forest fire in the nearby Capitan Mountains, and of riding in a posse in pursuit of Billy the Kid. The illustrations of N.C. Wyeth, which graced the covers of magazines and the insides of books, transported Henry to other worlds – those of The Last of the MohicansRobin Hood, and Treasure Island. He would get so caught up in living these adventures that he would often forget where he was and what he was doing.

During the early sixties, the Carnegie Library was crowded with kids. One Saturday afternoon Henry noticed that a high-school girl named Charlotte, who lived down the street from him, was having her own adventure. Charlotte’s mom would drop her off at the library early on Saturday afternoons so she could research papers for school. But after she drove off, Charlotte would walk across the street and meet a boy outside the Yucca Theater. They would go inside and watch a movie or drive off in his car to drag Main Street.

One afternoon Charlotte caught Henry staring out the window as she got out of her mom’s car. She knew that he knew what she was up to. So, she went inside and threatened him. Her boyfriend was big and strong. He would beat him up if Henry ever blabbed to her mom. She was sure that her threat had settled the matter, but what Charlotte didn’t realize was that the books Henry had been reading were preparing him for a life of adventure and danger.

Elementary school classes went on annual outings to Carlsbad Caverns, eighty miles south of Roswell. Kids had a box lunch at the end of the tour. It was served at the bottom of the Caverns in a dining area that teachers called the Ptomaine Tavern in the Cavern.  The baloney sandwich was so ptomainomous – the texture of the bread and the slimeyness of the baloney – that many kids became ill after eating it, but not Henry. After reading how Rasputin, the mad Russian monk, built up a tolerance to poison, he developed his own immunity by eating stale baloney sandwiches at home, some made with Miracle Whip, others with catsup.

The most dangerous thing about outings at Carlsbad Caverns involved vampire bats. Classes often emerged from the tour missing one or two kids. Teachers pretended that they must have found another ride home, but Henry knew the truth. The bats got them! These were smart, diabolical vampire bats. They could have had all the baloney sandwiches they wanted, but they didn’t bite. They patiently hung from stalactites waiting to drink the blood of children who strayed from the tour path. Henry’s dad said that they had an exemplary attitude. Their motto was, “Be positive, although A-positive will do.”

Henry also knew that these vampire bats flew north to Roswell during the summer because their supply of school kids on tours had been disrupted. They hung on trees waiting for sleepwalking children to walk their way. To make sure that he didn’t sleepwalk, Henry always slept in his Buster Browns. A shoe lace of one was tied to a shoe lace of the other so that if he began sleep walking, he would trip and wake up before he left the house.

When Charlotte threatened Henry, she was not aware of the dangerous nature of his life, nor that he could handle himself no matter what the threat. Indeed, she was surprised the next Saturday afternoon to see him outside the library. Henry ran around to the driver’s side window after the car pulled to a halt and said, “Mrs. Benson, the children’s librarian is sick today, and there is no one to read stories to the little kids. Can you do it?”

“I guess so.”

“And can Charlotte help you? I bet she tells really good stories!”

Yes, she could. Charlotte could work on her report while Mrs. Benson read stories, and when Charlotte was finished, she’d read stories to the children before they drove home. Mrs. Benson parked her car, and as the two got squared away in the Children’s Library, Henry looked out the window. Charlotte’s boyfriend was pacing back and forth in front of the Yucca Theater, checking his watch every minute or so. After fifteen minutes, instead of walking across the street to check on Charlotte’s whereabouts, he got in his heap and drove off. The guy had no detective skills. Henry figured Charlotte should thank him. She was better off without the jerk.

Years later, when Henry was in his twenties and thirties, some of his acquaintances would say, “I need to find myself,” which never made sense to him. Henry had found himself years earlier in the adventure books at the Carnegie Library.