I remember the evening that Mr. Reynolds came to our apartment. My parents had scheduled an appointment with him for 7:30. By then the dining room table would have been cleared, the dishes washed and dried and I should have completed my homework. I was eleven years old.
Mr. Reynolds sold a product called the “Encyclopedia Britannica.” It was, by far the largest compendium of knowledge available to the average person. My parents, who believed that the more a person learned the farther in life he or she might go, were assessing the possibility of purchasing a set for me. My parents knew that the set was expensive but they did not know the exact cost until Mr. Reynolds revealed that during his meeting.
We sat at the dining room table and Mr. Reynolds brought out his sales literature. He explained how so many people, experts in their field, had all contributed to the encyclopedia. And he also explained that there was an annual update which was published and that by purchasing the set, we would receive the next edition of it at no charge. Thereafter there would be a small fee for each additional update as it was shipped.
My parents looked at me and asked whether I would use this reference library if they decided to purchase it for me. I knew that I would but I had heard them discuss the price with Mr. Reynolds. It was several hundred dollars – by far the largest gift that I had ever received. And I was feeling overwhelmed at the enormity of the present.
I think my parents both knew that I would actually use the encyclopedia and had a sense of my feeling of awe, so although I couldn’t do much more than nod in assent to their question, they took that as a definite, “Yes.” We selected the dark green faux-leather binding with gold stamped lettering for our set.
Mr. Reynolds expertly completed the paperwork and my father signed it while mother went to her desk drawer to retrieve the checkbook and give him the deposit on the set. The balance that was due would be billed monthly over the next twenty-four months – but since my parents didn’t like owing money, I knew that this obligation would be retired long before then. In fact I had a plan to help pay for it.
It was nearing the end of the school year and I had read in “The Herald Tribune” that a bookseller by the name of Barnes & Noble purchased used school textbooks. Each of us students were given our various texts as part of our tuition fee. And I remembered that the previous year on the last day of school as I was gathering my school materials, all of the waste baskets were filled with texts that other students had discarded.
I asked my home room teacher, Miss Green if I would be allowed to collect these and take them home and explained the reason that I wanted them. Miss Green said that she would speak with the school’s principal, Mr. Tiffany but was quite sure that he would approve.
Miss Green was true to her word and two days later told me that would be fine and I had the principal’s permission. So my next step was to commandeer Grandma’s wire grocery cart so that I could transport all these books the two blocks from my school to our apartment. Of course, grandma, always a practical person, thought that this was a wonderful idea. In fact she went to the grocery store in advance of my engaging in the project and secured a number of cardboard boxes so that we could package the books for the bookstore.
Well, the last day of school arrived and I set to work, racing home to get the grocery cart and then back to school. Foolishly, I fully loaded up the cart but was unable to maneuver it down the school’s stairs. So I had to unload half of the books so that I could manage the cart. I left them in the stairwell and I hoped that none of the faculty would see them there.
I quickly wheeled my stash home to our apartment and grandma helped me unload it. Then back to school to retrieve the books I had unloaded and back home again. In total I made six trips, but the later ones took me longer as I had to go from classroom to classroom to load up. It seemed that there was a never ending supply of textbooks
Although I had not gone to every classroom and was sure that there were more textbooks I could retrieve, I was too tired even to consider a seventh expedition and had to be content with the books I had procured.
Grandma and I arranged these in the boxes she had brought home and my father agreed to drive to Barnes & Noble the following day, which was a Saturday. I think he was a little amused that I had put in so much effort, perhaps thinking that all that work might result in a five or ten dollar return.
Barnes & Noble was located a short distance from my father’s business. Dad had some paperwork that he wanted to get out of the way so he said that after we had sold the books he would buy me lunch at the little Italian sandwich shop that was down the street from his office. I was all in favor of that as they made a terrific eggplant parmesan sandwich in a robust marinara sauce.
So we got to the bookstore and started to unload. But most of the boxes were too heavy for me to lift. So dad went in and found the department that purchased used textbooks. He began carrying the boxes in and when he returned he came out with a young employee who helped him carry all the books inside while I stood vigilant, guarding the books that were still in our car’s trunk.
When we were finished, my father locked the car and we went inside where the clerks were figuring the purchase value of my treasure. With the extensive collection this took a little while – and then the manager of that department said to my father, “We will pay you $180.50 for these books, if that’s acceptable.”
I’m not sure who was more stunned – my father or me. That was nearly the balance that was still due on my Encyclopedia Britannica (my parents had sent in more than the minimum payment each month). So we gratefully accepted the cash from Barnes & Noble and drove to his office. After about an hour my father finished his paperwork and said that it was lunchtime.
Since I was now feeling extremely wealthy (although dad was holding the money in his wallet) I offered to pay for our meal. After thinking about it for a moment, he accepted my invitation. And so we walked to Marco’s where I had eaten on several previous occasions.
As the lunch was going to be on me I upgraded myself from the eggplant parmesan and decided to try the meatball sub. This was a grave decision as it was one of the pricier items on the menu ($1.45). Like the eggplant it was fantastic and extremely filling and exceptionally sloppy to eat requiring at least eight of those little napkins that the stainless steel container which sat on our table dispensed. Despite my efforts to be neat and even with all those napkins I still had to visit the facilities when we finished to wipe the marinara sauce off my hands and face.
Buying my father lunch that day was the only part of my new found money that my parents would accept. I tried to get them to use the rest to pay for the Encyclopedia Britannica but they refused and took the remaining money and put it in my savings account.
The fact that I had planned on contributing whatever we got from selling the books, however, gave the encyclopedia added value to me. And although I had spent some time with it, I now began reading it in earnest.
One of our neighbors, Mr. Benson was English and an executive with BOAC. He had a subscription to National Geographic and was discarding some old issues on the floor of our incinerator (yes, we burned garbage in those and got the whole Global Warming thing started), when I asked if I might have them. He gladly gave them to me and as he finished each new edition left it at our apartment door.
I was fascinated with the photos and the descriptions of the lives and customs of people from all around the world. How differently they lived from us. And so I started to read more about these foreign places in my Britannica.
After a lot of reading it suddenly struck me. How lucky I was to have been born in America and not the Belgian Congo or Azerbaijan, Ceylon or Outer Mongolia. I doubted that most of the kids there had books that they could resell and I was almost certain that Barnes & Noble didn’t have offices in any of those places to purchase them. And those kids would never have a chance to enjoy either the meatball sub or eggplant parmesan at Marco’s.
I would like to acknowledge my friend Charlie for sending me the email which contained the YouTube video you will find below. That provided the inspiration for this post. It is a recording of Miss Kate Smith singing “God Bless America” for the first time it was ever performed publicly. The song had been written some twenty years earlier by Irving Berlin but he had filed it away and it was never published.
This recording was made on Armistice Day, 1938 – as Hitler was moving the entire planet closer to World War II. It was a time of trouble and a time of fear not only in America but everywhere on our little pebble in space.
Those were disquieting times as are the times we live in today. But as I listened to this recording, which I heard Kate Smith perform many times in later years, tears came to my eyes and I thought that even with all the travail and anger and dysfunction, I’m still proud and most of all grateful to be an American.