When I was a wee lad, the Saranac Lake Free Library wasn't like it is now. It was a shadow of its current self - the original building having been incorporated in the current structure. You can still see the original building - its front is the little brick structure on the library's extreme right, its windows and door still in place.
And how I remember that door. For once I opened it, I was in a direct line of sight of the librarian's desk and the librarian.
The librarian, Mrs. Worthington, was one very formidable character. She was old, and while I don't know her birth date, I know her vintage - fin de siecle.
Fin de siecle conjures up images of opulence, decadence and a sense of glamour, but none of those things had touched Mrs. Worthington. She was oldand she was old school. To me, she most resembled a Charles Laughton version of Captain Blye.
Of course, a librarian who terrified children was considered less a liability than an asset. Back in them days, Bunkie, keeping kids in their place was simply the way of life but in a library, keeping them in their place, and stone silent, too, was a sacred mission. And it was a mission Mrs. Worthington carried out arduously.
So how did a free-spirited little Dope deal with such an authoritarian environment? The same way I dealt with all authoritarian environments - I obeyed the rules and did what I was told. Or at least I did it for the most part: There was, however, one time I decided to throw off my shackles and fight the power.
It happened on a cold winter's Saturday in eighth grade. I had to do the research for a term paper. Of course I hadn't even started the research and the paper was due that Monday. It was Dopey scholarship as usual.
But before I went to the library, I was meeting my boon companion Ralph Carlson at Boynton's candy store. Ralph was in the same predicament I was and we figured if we reinforced ourselves with a few fistfuls of cinnamon drops, gumballs and licorice, we'd be able to withstand the rigors of academe.
Ralph was the funniest kid I knew. He was a great joke teller, and he could handle repartee with the best of them. So it was inevitable we had a constant competition, trying to outdo each other with jokes, quips, puns, goofs, you name it. And right after I met him at the store, he gave me his latest joke.
"Hey," he said, "what does the 800 pound canary say?"
"I dunno," I said. "What?"
He narrowed his eyes into mean little slits and then, lowering his voice as deeply as he could, he said, "Heeeeere, kitty kitty."
Of course I dissolved in laughter. Then we goofed off some more till it was obvious we had to go to the library.
"Hey," he said, "wouldn't it be great if the water fountain in the library had soda instead of water?"
Suddenly, I was hit by an epiphany.
"You want soda in the library," I said expansively, "you can have it."
"How?" he asked.
"Simple," I said. "We'll each take a bottle in our jacket pocket."
"Yeah," he said, "but how're we gonna drink it there?"
"Even simpler," I said. "We'll put our jackets over the back of the chair and hang the sleeve over the bottle. Then we'll put a straw in the bottle, and when we wanna drink, all we gotta do is lift the sleeve."
Ralph immediately agreed, and after that all we needed was soda and straws. I say straws, not straw, because back then the straws were paper, not plastic, and they always prolapsed mid-soda- especially when the soda was an RC Cola, because RC was the only 16 ouncer on the market. And, smart shoppers that we were, there was no way we'd take a 25 percent loss on sugar, caffeine and artificial coloring.
When we got in the library, the plan worked beautifully. We walked by Mrs. Worthington's desk, our sodas safely stashed, and then went to the back room, where in total privacy we could partake of both our sodas and the wisdom of the ages. At least that was our theory. But as any advocate of trickle-down economics, bank deregulation and democracy in Iraq can tell you, theory is a whole lot easier to formulate than to execute.
And so it was with us, because about halfway through our sodas (and no way through our research), buzzed out of our skulls on a sugar high, we started to jam and jive, in ever-louder stages. Of course, while we didn't realize our decibel level, everyone else in the library did, so it was only a matter of time before we got busted.
Suddenly, I sensed impending danger, so I left the table to see where Mrs. Worthington was. Oddly, she wasn't at her desk, and I had no idea where she was. I returned to the table, shaking my head.
"I couldn't find the old bat," I told Ralph. "She's gone somewhere."
"Where, do you think?" he said.
I shrugged, and dropped into my chair.
"Probably took a break to feed her flying monkeys," I said.
It was of course a brilliant line, as evidenced by Ralph bursting into laughter.
I then decided to reward myself for my brilliance and sucked up a huge hit through my straw and at that very moment Mrs. Worthington materialized out of thin air.
Both of us froze.
"All right," Mrs. Worthington said, fixing me with her death ray eyes, "just what's so funny that you have to disturb the whole library?"
I was stuck. I couldn't talk with a whole mouthful of soda, and I couldn't swallow it or she'd find my stash. Instead, I just sat there, helpless, the trapped carbonation about to blow my head off.
"What's the matter with you, boy?" she said. "Cat get your tongue?"
Although Mrs. Worthington had no clue, she'd just set up a masterstroke of comic timing and Ralph was not about to let it go to waste.
He leaned forward, narrowed his eyes, and in his lowest, softest voice, said, ever so slowly, "Heeeeerekitty kitty."
Mrs. Worthington turned and looked at him, and as she did, in a combined snort, laugh and gasp, twin streams of RC Cola shot out my nose, while the rest got jammed in my throat.
It was warm, sticky, stinging and so weird, I leaped up, clamped my hands over my face and started yowling something that sounded like "Yargh! Yargh! Yargh!"
Mrs. Worthington turned and looked at me, and when she did, her eyes bulged and her jaw dropped. For all she knew, I'd just had a cerebral hemorrhage and the brown gloppy slop dripping through my fingers and running down the front of my sweater was brain fluid. No matter - she didn't stick around to find out, but split before we realized it.
Then Ralph and I, being a lot smarter than we looked, split before she realized it.
Of course, come Monday, neither of us had term papers, much less even outlines, to hand in. This earned us a royal reaming from the teacher, points deducted from our term paper grade and a week's detention.
At the time, I thought it was the cruelest of punishments. Now, when I think of the story I got out of it, it seems one of the best trades I ever made.