Thursday, June 24, 2004

It's time to get out of the apartment for more than a few minutes. It has been too easy for me to just stay here and read, work on the computer, and watch my videos.
So tomorrow (actually today since it is past midnight), I will head to Joplin and make the grand tour of the all book stores. I know that the last thing I need is more books. I keep collecting so many of them that I have to give them away, but somehow just having books around makes me feel good.
I can remember the first used book shop I went to. It was right off the northeast corner of the square in Neosho. I was a teenager then and when I discovered that I could buy books cheaply I began to stock up on them. I bought classics, I bought old Perry Mason mysteries and Louis L'Amour westerns. I bought a copy of "Pride and Prejudice" by Jane Austen and after that, I found myself compelled to buy the rest of her books. It took me a few years, but I have read them all and enjoyed them all.
It was a sad day when that little book shop closed its doors about 25 years ago, but by that time Taylor's Used Books had opened on the boulevard (it has since moved to the square) and there are several used book stores in Joplin. Another great used book shop in the area is "Mostly Books' in Pittsburg. The actor-comedian Steve Martin actually orders books from there. The store has several rare old hardback volumes.
The place is a mess and is probably a fire hazard, but there are books everywhere you look, upstairs and downstairs, newer books, older books, everything from trash novels to first edition classics. I bought a copy of Archibald McLeish's Pulitzer Prize winning play, "J. B." at Mostly Books.
"J. B," for those of you who are not familiar with it, is a modernized version of the Biblical book of Job. When I was a junior at East Newton High School, I watched Susan Warren and John Styron, two seniors, perform a selection from it at a speech contest.
I was primarily known for my work in comedy and when my senior year came around, I started the year doing a humorous duet with Rhonda Trammell from Woody Allen's "Play It Again, Sam." The selection wasn't working and I was having a hard time getting along with Rhonda so one night on the way back from a terrible showing at a speech tournament at Lamar, I impulsively did something that helped make my senior year an enjoyable one and a memorable one.
I saw Becky Hildebrand, a junior, sitting alone a couple of seats away from me. Becky, then as now, was probably the best friend I ever had and I knew it was time we did a duet act together. I stood and moved to where she was sitting, asked if she would mind some company. She told me to have a seat.
Within a few moments, I broached the topic of doing a dramatic duet act with her. "What would we do" she asked. I told her about "J. B." She thought it sounded great and we started to work on it the next day in drama class.
We worked and worked on the selection and when we did it at the district speech tournament at SMSU, we qualified for state. It was a great feeling and to be able to share it with Becky made it even better.
The state competition was held at the University of Missouri at Columbia. Becky and I went up with her mother and a lady named Mae Robbins. I remember how time flew just sitting in the back seat, talking with Becky all the way to Columbia.
We didn't do that well at state. In fact, our judge gave us an inferior rating. Judging from his written comments, he didn't believe that anything that smacked of the Bible had any place in a public school speech competition. He thought we should have done something with more substance.
Apparently, the Pulitzer Prize Committee of 1959 didn't agree, but I didn't get a chance to tell him that. It really didn't matter. It was a wonderful experience, spending a special day at a special place with a special person.
I later bought a copy of "J. B." at Taylor's House of Books and it became one of my most cherished possessions. When I reread the play, the old memories would come rushing back. Despite the grim subject matter, I couldn't help but smile as I pored over the words.
I lost touch with Becky for a long time, one of the stupidest things I have ever done. When you have a good friend, you should never let that person go. You should find some way to stay in touch.
I ran into her a few years back at the reunion that is always held during the Old Mining Town Days in Granby. It was if 20 years had not passed. We talked for over an hour about old times and the things that had happened to us in the intervening years. I had the feeling that neither of us really wanted to end the conversation, but unfortunately, the organizers of the reunion were getting ready to close things down and she had a family waiting for her.
We weren't in touch for a few years, then I finally looked up her address and wrote her about a six-page letter. I received a longer one about a week and a half later. We have stayed in touch ever since.
In the second letter she wrote me, she mentioned that she wished she had a copy of "J. B." She said she would love to read the play again and relive the memories. Within 24 hours of my reading that wish, my copy of the play was headed to her home in Broken Arrow, OK. Of course, that left me without a copy, but that was all right. I was just happy to know that experience had meant that much to Becky, too.
I've seen Becky two times in the past year. Last summer when Natural Disaster performed at the Old Mining Town Days, she came up to me after the performance. Unfortunately, the last time I saw her was at the visitation after her father died earlier this year.
A few months ago, I went to Mostly Books in Pittsburg and as I was browsing through the stacks and stacks of musty old volumes, I found a copy of "J. B." Eight dollars might seem a little overpriced for a paperback copy of a 45-year-old play, but I would have paid a lot more.
That one thin volume is priceless to me.

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