Boy Meets Encyclopedia
“A is the first letter of our alphabet. It is also the first letter in the first known alphabet, which dates to about 1850 B.C. It was used by a people called the Seirites, who lived on the Sinai Peninsula north of the Red Sea. They took this letter from Egyptian drawings of the head of an ox.”
That’s the beginning of the first entry in the A volume of the World Book Encyclopedia set that my parents bought on an installment plan in 1954. Thirty years later, as they were selling their house in Darwin Downs, I rescued the worn volumes from the garage that my father and brother had built. Over the following years, the eighteen books accompanied me to three houses east of Atlanta as my wife, son, and I moved successively farther and farther from the city. In preparing for our return to Huntsville in 2006, I jettisoned all but one volume. I hated sacrificing them and bidding them farewell, but I realized that the collection could be honored and represented by that one book, the venerable A volume.
At East Clinton Elementary, I was an earnest student at the Dick and Jane (and Sally, Spot, and Puff) Academy of Novice Readers. Although that method (“look-say”) of reading instruction came under attack in the late 1950s and eventually yielded to a largely phonics-based system, the Dick and Jane readers, with their Americana artwork and suburban family model, were foundational for us. They were our transformative writings of passage. We became the phantom playmates of Dick and Jane as we gave voice to the small moments of wonder and discovery in their lives. And as we read we haltingly gave voice to our own small steps in mastering a complex task: linking sound, symbols, and meaning to achieve fluency and comprehension.
On one page of the books, Dick tosses a toy airplane into the air. He exclaims: “Look. See it go. See it go up.” Jane said,”Oh, look! See it go. See it go up.” “Up, up,” said Sally. “Go up, up, up.” Allegories of perception. Anticipations of the space race.
As instrumental as the adventures of Dick and Jane were in fostering my literacy, intriguing worlds of reading called from beyond the classroom. Beloved comic books spring to my mind vividly and longingly: Little Lulu, Tubby, Sad Sack, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Tarzan, Dick Tracy, Dagwood, Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Dennis the Menace, Superman, Batman, Blackhawk, Archie and Jughead and Betty and Veronica-- ad-nearly-infinitum. Because I have a brother six years older than me who loved them, I was introduced to (and seduced by) the medium quite early. The shiny, bright covers, the action-packed or amusing stories, the appealing and kinetic artwork, the compelling, quirky and diverse characters—all those features delighted and spurred my youthful imagination. There’s no doubt the comics accelerated and bolstered my reading skills. There’s no doubt they put them into play.
[Aside: Who remembers the happiness that reigned when Mom stretched the grocery budget twenty-five cents further and bought you that giant comic book? “Please, Mom. Please. Please. Please.” (Early James Brown routine?). Or the fun it was to talk about comics and swap them with your friends? “Okay, I’ll trade you even for those four, but you’re going to have to give me three comics for this giant Tarzan.”]
A profound shift in our cognitive abilities occurred sometime (it was hoped) in the third grade: we began reading to learn and not just learning to read. With that change, we became increasingly empowered to educate ourselves. We didn’t realize it at the time, of course, because it was subtle (and we were just kids) and because it was part of a complex continuum of learning. Nevertheless, we took a big step forward. That advance prepared us to deal with the increased scope and rigor of subjects in the following years.
I have no clear memory of exactly when the World Book set became part of our family. My folks, in the age-old tradition of trying to make their children’s lives better than theirs, had chosen to provide that valuable resource for their children. I do recall that the books were ensconced in a low bookcase amongst some decorative items and other books, mostly German, in the simple dining area of our living room.
The pebble-grained texture of the encyclopedias’ red covers and the accents of navy blue and gold ornamentation gave the volumes elegance. Clearly, these were no ordinary books. As if signaling the abundance of information that it harbored, each volume carried a palpable, impressive heft.
A profusion of images—photographs, pictures, charts, diagrams, and maps-- distinguished the World Book Encyclopedia format. As part of that initial entry about the letter A, a sequence of five symbols traced the metamorphosis of the letter from its origins as an abstraction of an ox’s head to the form we’re all familiar with. The graphics were, of course, integral to the understanding of the brief article. Throughout the set, text and artwork supported each other to impart information effectively and invitingly.
The first time I used the encyclopedia for school was in preparing a report on the mockingbird in the fourth grade. After that, the books-- with their vast treasury of knowledge (Well, it seemed that way to a kid) -- became my welcome, steady companions. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t leave my bedroom anymore because the books had absolutely enthralled me or stolen my soul. My action-packed boyhood in Darwin Downs continued. And no comic books were put away as childish. But what I had found, or what had been given to me, was an ideal source of general information for a ten-year old eager to learn about the world and the works of man. I didn’t find every article interesting, but there were plenty of them, and as my reading skill improved none of them proved to be daunting for long.
When I brought the set back to Atlanta, it became an unacknowledged talisman (a ponderous one, to be sure). Something had told me to save the books, but I wasn’t aware of their full significance in my life. For years, I thought of them only with an undefined nostalgia. I felt a pang of regret, as we were paring down our possessions, that only one of the volumes would return to Huntsville with us, but that one could stand for all of them.
As I began looking through the A volume again recently and thinking about this essay, I discovered a new joy in the books and finally understood how formative they had been. They helped quicken and nourish an inquisitive spirit that has been the through line of my life. I’ve wanted to know—not everything, of course, but a sense of inquiry leads you to many places (maybe all over the World Book Encyclopedia to begin with), and it’s been a fascinating and educational journey through life, from A to….
Memphis, TN - Thanks to Rainer for supplying us with this week's nostalgic look into our past. How do you spell encyclopedia?
I am sure all of you know how to spell encyclopedia, but how many of you just sang the spelling, the way Jiminy Cricket taught us on The Mickey Mouse Club? I don't know about you, but I still sing the song every time I try to write the word, and probably will until the day I die. So...let's sing along with Jiminy...
My First Day After Graduation
The first day after graduation was an eventful one for me, too. I had been awarded (along with John Ridgeway and I forget who else) a summer job by the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association. My placement was at the Aerophysics Branch of the Physical Sciences Laboratory of the Army Missile Command. The charge of the Aerophysics Branch, headed by Dr. Oscar M. Essenwanger, turned out to be an apt fit for me, given especially the direction of my future career: the statistical study of vector wind shears (which Dr. Essenwanger called “wector vind shears”), which exert a toppling effect on missiles. On that first morning he called me into his office for a two-hour lecture, in which he derived the least-squares equations for log-transformed data. I hadn’t seen partial derivatives, though it was fairly intuitive what was going on, and I could follow in a vague way. But then he handed me a sheaf of papers and told me to get to work. There was no visible connection between the papers and the lecture, and, after I screwed up my courage, I had to go back in and tell him I didn’t have the slightest idea what I was supposed to do. His disgust at having wasted his entire morning was not easy to witness. I recall having to use Tables of the Incomplete Gamma Function, which leads me to believe we must have been making inferences about variances; but I don’t recall any mention of the gamma distribution in the lecture, and I don’t think that was clear to me at the time. As with all the other summer jobs I held, this was to retrospect obviously a make-work assignment, which could have been much more efficiently programmed for our IBM 1620 computer; but I was grateful nevertheless. One side benefit of the job was getting to attend a weekly series of lectures by the top scientists on the Arsenal. They were mostly well over my head, but still fascinating. I recall a lecture by Ernst Stuhlinger on ion propulsion, for example, and another by Wernher von Braun. Another attraction of the job was the Army cafeteria. The menu posted one day featured “Roast Beef au Fromage.” I was curious what that would be like, and was disappointed when there wasn’t any fromage at all; it was evidently just a phrase the chef had picked up somewhere which he thought would lend cachet to the menu. It was, finally, an interesting bunch of characters that I worked with. At the desk on my left was Hubert D. Bagley, who was also the weatherman for one of the local TV stations; it took me forever one day when he was telling me about his “hard hands” to realize that he was saying “hired hands.” On my right was Helmut P. Dudel, whose name fit him perfectly.
Since I didn’t have an interesting enough name to qualify for permanent work at the Aerophysics Branch, I worked the following summer at IBM. My father worked there, and IBM had a nepotism program for offspring of employees. IBM was at the time constructing a new building, which was to contain a 24’ x 72’ simulation laboratory, and my assignment for the summer was to design the layout of the equipment for that lab. It was a challenging assignment; at that point I not only had not studied electronics, but hadn’t even taken the introductory physics course at Oberlin, for which concurrent registration in second-year calculus was required. But I was having to pore over wiring diagrams and make decisions based on the maximum feasible length of cables and the like. One day I overheard one of the senior engineers, after consulting with me, saying sarcastically, “He’s a real Redy Kilowatt.” Quite by accident in my exit interview at the end of the summer, it came out that my boss had thought all along that I had a B. S. in electrical engineering, when I had had only one year of a liberal arts program! If the lab blew up, I never heard about it.
The Virtual Television
We're changing channels this week and instead of listening to our Virtual Jukebox, we're going to switch to a little Virtual Television of our times. We'll start off with some bits I hope you remember.
We start with the opening theme.
Here's the Monday theme song.
Lee Lunch Bunch Scheduled
28 April, 2016
Patsy Hughes Oldroyd
Please save the date for our next Lee Lunch Bunch, and plan to join us. We have not met since right before our big 50th reunion, so we have a lot of catching up to do. Also, it will be a good time for many of the '66 bunch to touch base about their upcoming 50th celebration. As always, please let me know if you plan to come so we can give Logan’s an accurate number. They do require this in order to let us keep reserving the nice fireplace room at their restaurant.
If anyone who is coming that has a digital camera, or cell phone that makes really great pictures, and would be willing to make a few photos that day for us to share with you for the Traveller, please do.
Thanks a bunch and hope to see you there,
Patsy Hughes Oldroyd ’65
256 431-3396 text or call
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