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Library was part of my childhood summer leisure
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The end of school this week brings back a flood of sweet memories of what it felt like to be in school and the prospect of three months of free time all to one's self.

I think back to one particular photo that is embedded in memory -- and still in my collection -- of me on the eve of my eighth grade graduation, taken by a Polaroid camera that I received as a graduation gift. I remember that camera like it was yesterday: A big bulky plastic thing that you loaded up with film so expensive that you had to be selective about what you shot. Now people shoot gazillion photos with low-cost digital.

In this photo I am wearing pants of loud plaid and a yellow shirt and tie. My long arms look as though my body has yet to grow into them. I am standing in front of our rural Oakdale home staring directly into the evening sun. I have a wide grin on my face but when I was 13 I didn't find much to smile about for I was one of those moody, brooding boys balled up by hormones and body and mood changes, before the acne invaded and declared holy war on my face. That evening, in early June 1975, I graduated from Oakdale Junior High School.

Summer. What to do. Well, that summer of 1975 my entire family took a month long road trip all the way back to Washington, D.C. That's a whole another column. Most summers were less memorable.

The end of school means freedom to kids if they don't have to attend summer school and don't have a job. I did neither. Of course, there were the obligatory chores of helping do housework (I still remember having to "rake" the living room shag carpet and hallway), and slay tomato worms in the family garden in the cool of the morning. I squawked like a wet hen at my dad's request to help out like most in that bratty age. Other than that I had to be creative about ways to keep busy.

There were always bike jaunts down to the Ben Aker General Store in Valley Home where we boys loaded up on candy and soda before riding two miles back home. At other times we'd bike down another road taking me past a small dairy and milk shed where 1970s country music invariably played. Even to this day the smell of a dairy takes me back to those days as a boy.

An irrigation ditch overgrown with thorny vines behind the ranchette because a distant jungle to explore as we found wet relief from the summer.

On the Fourth of July we'd have a blast celebrating with front-yard fireworks and invite the elderly neighbors, the Lawsons, from across the street to enjoy. We nearly set Mrs. Lawson's sister's hair on fire with our wanton swinging of sparklers and laughed about it for weeks.

In the evening the mournful call of peacocks from the Lawsons would serve as the sounding call of evening relief from the heat as the Delta breeze brushed in with the darkness.

I was not especially an outdoor kid, unlike the outdoor adult I am today. I liked being inside the house where the AC shielded me from those fiercely hot summer days. I must have always had a bent to write or research for that's exactly what I did. On a whim I did a nerdy thing and decided to do reports on all the 50 states on three-ring lined binder paper, typewritten on my mother's college Smith-Corona typewriter. I'd sit on the floor, butt down with legs and feet spread out from my body which would always illicit some observing family member to say, "I don't see how you can do that."

Summer always included trips to the downtown Modesto library. It was a world of exploration for my brothers and me. We'd pull up on either the 15th or 16th Street sides of the library and unload from the family VW or Brady Bunch style station wagon and take a run to scale the short cement wall leading to the wide porticos, only to stop when we spotted the bums populating the colonnades. Inside there would always be some homeless man using the public library for a makeshift motel. We ignored them and made our way to the sections of books that interested us the most. I enjoyed history and biography the most. One book that I must have checked out 100 times was George Sullivan's 1971 book "The Complete Book of Autograph Collecting" since I had been bitten by the collecting bug. I also enjoyed Hardy Boys mysteries.
I also enjoyed checking out books that showed geographic wonders of our country. Maybe that's what inspired me to enjoy road trips to check them out.

The library -- which looks exactly the same as it did when I was in grade school- also offered me other opportunities other than books. I was interested in politics so I had my parents drive me to a public meeting there with Congressman John McFall. I was thrilled to arrive at the same time as McFall and got to ride in the same elevator down to the basement where the meeting took place. Any awe I had of that encounter was eclipsed when I got to see President Ford in his November 1975 Fresno campaign stop.

I recommend parents compelling their kids this summer to get involved with the library. Books stir the imagination and keep one entertained while practicing reading skills. To this day I think one of the reasons I became a writer was my exposure to books that I checked out in the downtown library.

Of course, for those who wish to save the gas, the Ceres library has quite a collection to keep the youngsters busy and a number of fun activities planned this summer. And the best part is its' all free to all county residents.

Happy hunting at the library this summer!

How do you feel? Let Jeff know at