Friday, June 15, 2007

Reading while waiting for the floor to dry

One of the best parts about volunteering for the annual Hillsdale Book Sale is getting to browse through the books as they come in.

This morning the ever-helpful Don Baack and I power-washed the grungy floor of the abandoned gas station where the sale will be held on Sunday, July 29.

After Don had left with his power washer, I sat on the station’s front step next to the five boxes of donated books we had moved out during the power washing. Now I waited for the floor to dry before moving the boxes back inside.

I reached over and picked up the top volume from a stack of old American Heritages. Dated July 1958, the hard-bound coffee-table issue presented an intriguing mix of articles and art.

Here was an excerpt of a Woodrow Wilson biography Titled “The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson.” It was written by an author, Herbert Hoover, who was no stranger to presidential ordeals of his own. And, as Hoover reminds us, he had shared in much of Wilson’s own turmoil during World War I, the peace negotiations, and this country’s bitter rejection of League of Nation membership.

The local connection was obvious. Two blocks from where I sat is Woodrow Wilson High School, and perhaps 35 miles away is the boyhood home of Hoover in Newburg.

The nearly half-century old American Heritage volume offered another regional connection in the form of an article titled “The Legend of Jim Hill.” Hill was the bigger-than-life driving force behind the building of the Great Northern Railway. He went on to acquire the Northern Pacific as well and wage the “railroad wars” of central Oregon with railroad rival Edward H. Harriman.

Jim Hill is not to be confused with Sam Hill, who established the Maryhill Museum of Art in the Columbia Gorge. Nevertheless, their lives intertwined as Sam married Jim’s eldest daughter after he went to work for Jim Hill and the Great Northern.

I’d like to be able to report that by pure serendipity, The Red Electric, which once stopped a stone’s throw from where I sat, figured in all this railroad history. But the distinctive looking (see header photo) interurban train was part of the Southern Pacific system. And that’s another story altogether.

But there were personal connections to think about as the floor dried and I turned the pages. As a Quaker, I noted that my doorstep reading had led me to two Quakers. Directly through Hoover and indirectly to Sam Hill, who also built the Peace Arch on the US-Canadian border.

The other find in the box next to me was a 1935 Graham Green novel that I had never heard of, I fondly remember reading most of his work by kerosene lantern when I was in the Peace Corps in Kenya in the Sixties. This Greene novel was titled “The Shipwrecked.” The reason for its obscurity is that it is better known as “England Made Me,” the title under which it was first published. The book was made into a 1973 film under its original title. It starred none other than Peter Finch and Michael York. I’d never heard of the film either, but on-line reviews suggest that it is worth a look.

Patch by expanding patch, the floor soon dried. I pulled down the three heavy sliding garage doors and drove home in the drizzle, wondering what riches the next load of donated books might yield.

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