There was a sign on the front of the house saying we were quarantined. Nobody but the family was allowed inside because I had scarlet fever.
Scarlet fever, a strep throat with a rash, is rare now, but there were no antibiotics back then, and the disease was contagious. There must have been a public health nurse around somewhere to make sure we were observing the quarantine, and it must have been she who said my books had to be burned.
I had learned to read the year before, sitting in Miss Ella’s lap at Miss Ella’s kindergarten, and I must have loved my books, though I don’t remember feeling sad as my parents and I fed them into the big old coal stove that heated the house in Leitchfield, Kentucky.
1942 was an eventful year. At school, we collected scrap metal for the war drive. Since I could read, the teacher took me out of first grade and put me in second, where I was utterly bewildered. There was a tornado that pulled up the fence in the back yard. Big Jo, an orphaned relative only a few years younger than my mother, came to live with us. My little brother was bitten on the face by a neighbor’s dog. He and I got measles, whooping cough, and then the scarlet fever.
In retrospect, it could have been a real plague year. It must have been tough, supporting five people on a teacher’s salary. But Daddy went fishing sometimes, and once he brought home frog’s legs which Mother fried, screaming when they jumped in the pan. There was a cherry tree in the back yard. Daddy built whatever we needed, and Mother made most of our clothes. We must have had a garden for vegetables.
So many years later, knowing how it all turned out, it would be easy to read emotions into all those events. But in actuality, a child’s view of reality did not (and does not) contain many innate judgments. The books were burned; I can remember how the flames in the old stove ate up the pages, brown, black, orange fire, ash.
I imagine some kind of serene detachment, backed up by promises of new books to come. But in reality, the day they burned my books was just like any other day, filled with wonder, never quite long enough.