Derrolyn Anderson's blogpost about inscriptions in used books brought to mind one of those bizarre little "book stories" that I've shared with a lot of people over the years. This seems like a good place to share it again.
I am, of course, an admitted book hoarder. I'm not sure when the real obsession with books as objects began, but I do remember some early behaviors that probably should have served as warning signs. By the time I'd reached adulthood, the habits had been ingrained and there was probably little hope for a cure.
One event stands out for its sheer bizarreness, however. Whether my speculations about the meaning of the tiny bits of historical evidence are accurate or not, we'll never know, but I like to think (because I'm a writer and imagination is precious to me) the story behind the story is true.
This much of it is true, because it happened to me.
In the spring of 1980, my husband and I had moved into a new home with our two young children. Our budget for furniture was almost nonexistent, so we did what so many young people did in rural Indiana in those days: We went to farm auctions. Most of the pieces we picked up were nothing special, and I really had to restrain myself from buying other goodies.
I wasn't always successful, and sometimes the auctioneers recognized that I was an easy mark. An antique sewing machine that would have gone for $5 was bid up by the auctioneer so that I ended up paying $40 for it. (And I still have it.) From one auction we went home with several bushel baskets of old Mason jars. (I still have some of those, too.)
Books would have been the hardest to resist, but for some reason we didn't see many of them at these auctions. And the one time we did. . . . .
I bought the whole lot for $2. There were several cardboard boxes and an old, dried out, falling apart briefcase. The books were school texts from the 1920s or thereabouts, and I really only wanted the music books, but I had to take them all. I really wasn't complaining.
After we got home, I began sorting through them and discovered many duplicates. A little investigation suggested that they had belonged to two sisters, Marguerite and Phyllis Kosht, of Decatur, Indiana. They had attended Decatur High School, where Marguerite was in the Class of 1925, Phyllis a year behind in 1926. Where there were two copies of the same text, I kept the one in better condition and discarded the other. Though I had hoped for some history or other social studies books, most were either English grammar and composition texts, or Latin.
My own Latin being very rusty (I'd only had one year of it in high school), I hoped maybe I could refresh my knowledge, and so I sat down one night with Marguerite's 1907 edition of Caesar's Gallic War from publisher Scott, Foresman and Company. I hadn't got very far when a small piece of paper fell out of the book.
That much of the story is absolutely true, because it was what happened to me. And you'll see in a bit that the evidence is real. But from then on, it entered the realm of speculation and imagination. . . .
A corner of a page torn from a composition book, perhaps, written on both sides in pencil in two different handwritings, it could only be a note passed between two students, almost certainly Marguerite and a friend. I had no way of knowing which was which. . . .
He is afraid of me you asked (undecipherable)...
Take that, that is on his seat. I wonder where it came from.
You get it for me, will you?
I ask him for it for you if you want me to.
Oh, you needn't bother, Honey, but I would like some.
And the exchange continued on the back:
Do you really want some that bad? If you do I'll give you some of mine. If you'll take it.
I had no idea what "it" was that one of them wanted "some" of, but I felt a weird connection with those girls of more than half a century before. After the Great War, the War to End All Wars, before the Great Depression, before the Second World War. Caesar was forgotten as I flipped through those old pages to see if there were any other notes, any clues to what they'd been passing this note about.
Then a second little piece of paper fell out of the book, this one about half the size of the first. And the two handwritings continued on it. But this wasn't a scrap of notebook paper. It was readily recognizable, and it tied the entire dialogue together.
In the same handwriting as the last comment above:
Aske(sic) (someone's name but undecipherable) for some.
dive me some dum. Me Me Pea's.
I isn't dot any, honey.
It doesn't make any sense, unless the powers of imagination and the links of high school trivia make it make sense.
Two girls, sophomores (according to Marguerite's notation in the front of the book) in an Indiana high school classroom in 1923 or so, could not have escaped exposure to the the best-selling book of 1916, Seventeen by Booth Tarkington. Tarkington, an Indiana native, had won the Pulitzer Prize in 1919 for The Magnificent Ambersons and again in 1922 for Alice Adams. I could easily imagine one of these girls emulating the baby-talking "heroine" Lola Pratt of Seventeen, and from there it was no stretch to translate that second line and then the response in the third:
Give me some gum. Me, me, please.
I haven't got any, honey.
The notes were written perhaps 90 years ago. Seventeen is available free from Project Gutenberg and on Kindle. And tucked away in that 1907 edition of Caesar's Gallic War that still resides on my living room bookshelf are those two notes.
That last part, written on a little scrap just 2 by 2 1/2 inches, is unmistakable even almost a century later: