Children’s Books And Lasting Lessons

At the southeast corner of Schiller Park, a pedestrian can take two routes. One can use the access driveways in and out of the parking lot to cut the corner and save a few steps. Or, one can go through the driveways to the actual corner beyond before turning the corner and continuing the walk. I always walk through to the corner beyond the driveway before turning, and when I do I think “neat and square.”

“Neat and square” is a line from Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, a book I read as a kid. It’s just one of the things that has stuck with me from that book Mom first read to me so long ago.

You may know the story. Mike Mulligan has a steam shovel named Mary Anne. Mike was proud of her and the work they could do together, and boasted of Mary Anne’s capabilities. And Mike and Mary Anne did the job right, always finishing the corners of what they dug “neat and square.” But it was hard for an old-fashioned steam shovel to compete with newfangled diesel-powered digging machines. In one troubling scene in the book, Mike and Mary Anne view a junk heap of other sad, discarded steam shovels that have been abandoned by their owners. But Mike is loyal to Mary Anne and would never dream of doing that.

Mike goes out to a small town that is digging a cellar for a new town hall and gets the job on the condition that he and Mary Anne can dig the basement in just one day. When the day comes, Mike and Mary Anne continue to do the job right, and finish the corners neat and square, even though the clock is against them. A crowd gathers, which causes Mike and Mary Anne to work faster than ever before—and just as the sun is setting they finish the job. But there’s a problem: in their frenzied rush to complete the digging in just one day, Mike and Mary Anne have forgotten to leave a ramp for Mary Anne to exit the cellar, and she is trapped. Fortunately, a boy in the crowd suggests that Mary Anne use her steam to become the new furnace, the town builds the town hall around her, and the story happily ends with Mary Anne heating the hall and Mike serving as its janitor.

It’s a good book, with some powerful messages that resonated with me. Do the job right, and be proud of your work. Be loyal to those you work with. And recognize that sometimes difficult problems can be solved with creative thinking.

Those lessons have stuck with me for decades. It just shows that reading to your children can really have a lifelong impact.

Long’s Gone

When you get older, you come to accept the inevitability that things you remember from your youth — whether it is TV shows, favorite athletes, failed breakfast cereals, or brands of beer — will vanish into the mists of time.

mt_long_book_demo_fs_3Still, it was weird to see recent photos of demolition equipment tearing down Long’s college bookstore, across the street from the OSU campus.  When I attended Ohio State back in the ’70s, Long’s was as much a part of the University as the Orton Hall chimes.

Everyone who went to Ohio State — and that covers a lot of people — stopped into Long’s, or its nearby competitor, SBX, to buy their textbooks.  Students would take their course syllabi, scan for the required texts, and then head to Long’s to get the books.  It was a crammed yet sprawling, ramshackle store that also sold OSU fan gear and therefore attracted a good crowd of Buckeye fans, which just added to the hustle and bustle of the place.

At Long’s you would learn that your college professors often wrote the textbooks for the courses they taught . . . and that the texts seemed to carry an awfully high price tag compared to some of the other books available.  But, what could you do?  It was a required text, and how in the world could you expect to pass the course if you didn’t have one?  Experienced students learned that it paid to get to the bookstores early, because with luck you could find a reasonably used copy of the text at a much lower price.  And then, at the end of the quarter — for it was quarters, not semesters, back in those days — you would resell your books to Long’s or SBX for pennies on the dollar.  Why?  Because it was a buyer’s market, and no college student wanted their apartment cluttered with texts from Philosophy 101 or Poli Sci 265, and you’d rather get a few bucks that you could spend on beer and pizza.  It’s not like you were ever going to read a textbook again, anyway.

In this simple way, Long’s taught naive OSU students some valuable lessons.  Buy low, sell high.  Brace yourself for a gouging.  And understand that the world isn’t fair.

Those are some pretty enduring life lessons, when you think about it.

Tricycle Times

One of the kids in the neighborhood left their tricycle out overnight, and Penny, Kasey and I walked past it on our morning walk.

From a quick walk-by examination, it looks like the basic trike hasn’t changed much since I rode one more than 50 years ago.  The big wheel with the attached pedals, the sturdy metal frame, the two small rear wheels — and of course, the streamers from the handlebars — all are pretty much the same as they were during the Kennedy Administration.

What kid didn’t love a tricycle?  It’s a simple piece of machinery that has produced a lot of unabashed joy over the years.  I remember my younger sisters ripping around their neighborhood on their tricycles, determined to go faster, ever faster.

Then, one day, your parents tell you it’s time for you to move up to a two-wheeler, where you would be teetering and farther, much farther, from the pavement.  You hated the thought, but knew you would have to leave the security of your firmly anchored tricycle behind.  So you stopped riding the trike, balanced ineptly on the bicycle, fell a few times and wondered if you would ever be able to do it — until one day you did it, and you’ve never forgotten how.

For many of us, letting go of the tricycle is one of the first great life lessons.