Writers, a Breezeway, and Libraries

I love writers. One of my best friends, Jon Coleman sent me a story he wrote in 1994. I was a Freshman in college living in the dorm. It was a fantastic story about a hobo walking down the railroad tracks with a stick and a nap sack tied to the end. He’d sleep just off the tracks in the woods or near a small stream. He’d steal, drink his liquor, and always find trouble. He ended up killing someone and this and that happened along the way. It was so descriptive and I felt like I could see, smell, hear, and even touch the story itself.

“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”

Ernest Hemingway

He said I should give writing a try – that Ernest Hemingway said two things that would make sense to me: 1) Write one true sentence. 2) Write drunk and edit sober. He said, “CK, you’ve lived so many lives and have great stories — you tell them all the time, just write one true sentence and then another, and another. Write them down even if they don’t make sense. Later we can connect and bridge them together and make a story of it. And so I did.

Together, in the late nineties we started a writing club and had about a dozen people join us. We had a blast and some really great writers and college professors showed up. We’d have an assignment each month that we found in some books in the library about ‘How to write well.” We kept growing and after about 6-months we had people visiting from the boot heel of Missouri and Memphis.

Together we attended the Hemingway writing school at the Hemingway Pfeiffer House in Piggott, Arkansas. We did it twice for twelve weeks total. It was one of the greatest times of my life.

This was Ernest Hemingway’s home when he married Pauline Pfeiffer. They moved there in the spring of 1928. We figured it was because he was such an avid hunter and fisherman and the countryside of the delta and ridge just stole his heart, but from the pictures Ms. Pauline Pfeiffer sure was a looker.

We continued to build our network and write. He’d write and I’d always read his stories with admiration and awe. I’d write and he’d edit my work for days, even weeks – always in red pen. It looked like someone had bled all over my content. But he kept encouraging me to keep writing and I’d rewrite and rewrite again until either he was satisfied or his pen ran out of red ink.

He left Jonesboro, Arkansas to attend The University of Mississippi, on scholarship for a Master in Creative Writing. Ole Miss was the finest writing school in the south. The University of Mississippi was consistently ranked in the top 10 for aspiring writers. Professors included fiction writers, poets, and screenwriters who taught and mentored undergraduates. Alumni blew my mind: William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, John Grisham and many more stellar story tellers.

Jon’s father caught the cancer something awful and Jon left school to move home and help his mom and little brother care for his dad. He was soon a broken young man, as his father was a legend to them and me, and many others. He was the rock, the roots, and the wheels. Mr. Coleman was a fine attorney, a wonderful dad, and a great mentor. He died a seemingly slow death from the cancer, losing so much weight you couldn’t hardly recognize him.

Jon decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and attended law school at University of Arkansas. He was a good attorney and was hired by a great, yet small, intimate firm. The two partners were mentors to Jon. He looked up to them and they helped my friend learn the ropes. He moved home to Jonesboro, Arkansas just a block from my home and we gathered each day to visit, watch soccer or the Hogs, cook, and talk about books and writing and other things that made sense to us.

My friend, Jon died in 2008. We must have had nearly ten thousand hand written, printed, and digital pages of literature. The Hemingway Pfeiffer House hung a giant portrait of him in the library, above a bookshelf of classics donated by friends, family, and even some of the most prestigious writing professors in the world.

One day I was taking the long way home from work, as I often did and stopped in Holcomb, Missouri to have a cold beer and pork steak from the famed Strawberries BBQ. I decided to visit the Hemingway Pfeiffer House in Piggott. I parked, walked through the door, and the place was empty. I entered the library where Jon’s picture hung on the wall and took it all in: I flipped through the pages of classic books that were donated in his honor. I smelled the must of the pages, the furniture, and the home. I walked through the house and visited the book store. Still I saw no one.

I walked over the the breezeway, a space that had always infatuated me, a space I had sat for weeks at a time and wrote a novella titled, ‘Seeing Double’. A wind would blow through that narrow horse stall looking concrete floored breezeway that separated the barn where Ernest Hemingway wrote ‘A Farewell to Arms’ and what was now the bookstore. I sat for awhile and made my way up the stairs to the barn where Ernest Hemingway wrote. Still no one.

I looked at all the artifacts, history – some left as they were when Hemingway moved away. One was his typewriter. I wanted so bad to place a blank sheet of typing paper in it and punch some keys. I did punch a key and felt like the ghost of Hemingway done up and crept on me. Knowing Ernest Hemingway was somewhat of a rogue and knave I didn’t want to mess with the Ghost of Hemingway. So, I left.

I drove my truck past the flooded rice fields of the delta and over Crowley’s Ridge and mourned the flooded timber so famous for ducks and geese. I made my way through small towns of of the delta with populations around 1,200 and most people shared the same last name, like Baltz or Anderson. I just wanted to go home. It was on the verge of being a bit too much.

The next day I received a call from Phyllis Burkett, the Executive Director of Craighead County Library. This library was the anchor for 5 other surrounding counties in the delta that couldn’t afford to support their own, so they had satellite libraries. She asked me if I’d be interested in joining the Board of Directors.

I did some homework and quickly realized of the dozen individuals on the board I was about two generations younger than the youngest. I replied to her with this new found information and asked, “Why me?” She said, “We need you. We need new blood. Someone that will stand for what they believe in and introduce new ideas and technology to our board. They have all been here for generations and are pretty steadfast in what they do. They’re just going through the motions and I want you to shake things up.”

I accepted and attended my first meeting. We met bi-weekly and for about the first three months I just listened and learned until one day when a topic was brought up about modernization, progress, and change; everyone was about to pass it through, but Ms. Phyllis said, “Charles, what do you think?”

I’d never had an issue speaking my mind, if and only if I knew what I was saying was correct, or at least difficult to debate. I stood and spoke my mind, basically presenting an idea that was so far ahead of their time that they couldn’t wrap their heads around what I was saying. A few puny arguments followed, but I stood my ground because there was a hyper-evolution in society, maybe even a revolution deeply rooted in technology and if we didn’t accelerate change we would be left behind. And if the public library is left behind, so would the people in our communities that depend on the libraries for for education, technology, social interaction, children, respite, and so much more.

She tabled the discussion until next meeting to the dismay of many long-time board members and centers of influence in our city of around 100,000. She called me that night and said, “Charles, I stand with you. You’re right, but they won’t listen to me. I want you to stand your ground and make a case for change. I don’t want you to take no for an answer. I’ll stand beside you and so will others on my staff and on the board. If you don’t do it, who will?”

Books are cool.

The next week the topic was at the very bottom of the agenda. A part of me wanted time to pass and run out, so I wouldn’t have to face the old men and women I knew would push back with closed-minded authority. The time came and Ms. Phyllis asked if anyone had anything they wanted to discuss about the issue at hand, ‘progress’… and before she could even finish the eldest person in the room and longest term-member of the board stood up and said, “There is no need for discussion. We decided last meeting the direction we would go. We’ve always done it like this and there has never been a problem.”

He sat and called for a vote and his voice was stern and a bit louder than I remembered. Heads bobbed up and down, some mumbling, and a few of the ladies even clapped. I thought that was odd and put my hands flat on the table and stood up. “I have something to say. Times have changed and will continue to evolve. What you may consider younger generations are growing up and will be leading this and other communities when you are no longer here. Many of you knew me as a child and some of you probably still consider me a kid. That’s ok. I represent a new generation. A generation that is not exactly like yours. A generation that is technology savvy, open minded, and more progressive. All of this is ok. The beauty of our lives is that we change and learn from one another…”

I went on and on, like I do sometimes because I knew I was right and I had their ears open and their eyes wide. When I sat back down Ms. Phyllis ‘golf clapped’ and said, “anyone else?” The head of technology, Ben Bizzle stood and went on a data frenzy about how we are not keeping up and he had the plans all written out and presented a 10 minute digital power point, and handed out folders with all the data and comparisons, so they could take it home and read it.

Another board member stood and supported the change, and she was a quiet one. 2 more employees walked through the door and shared their support and presented Ms. Phyllis a signed petition by of 500 advocates and philanthropist of the library. Another quiet lady, also a member of the board stood and slammed her hand on the table startling a few of the elders and said, ‘Ouch, I also support change and advancement.’ And she sat back down.

‘Well, anyone else?” No one said a word. The elderly man stammered a bit and for a minute; I thought he was going to have a heart attack. “All in favor raise your hand and say ‘I’.”

8-2 was the final vote and a multi-million dollar expansion and technology overhaul including some first-ever innovation of its kind was implemented in the Craighead County Library, right here in Arkansas. Ben Bizzle won a national award, maybe a few for leading the charge for change and innovation. He is now a library technology consultant, owning his own business and working around the nation.

I say all of this for no reason at all except to remember my friend, Jon Coleman and to remember that I am getting older and change is inevitable. Change is good. Younger generations know things that I do not, and I have wisdom that they do not. And my elders have been through times that I have not. The fact is that together we are better and we can all learn from one another. It takes a village working together to advance and do great things. I’m ready for our village to come together and do great things. I’m ready for change.


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