Personal Essay – Book Burning

Akira pushed the gas pedal even farther into the floor. More black smoke swirled up through the opened window: the engine wasn’t burning all its diesel fuel. He tapped the speedometer. The needle still quivered below 5 mph. Even though we had a half-ton of green wood behind us in the trailer, we should be able to travel faster than this. And the engine shouldn’t sound like a wind-up soldier at the end of its run.

Our destination was Deep Springs College, a 26-student, all-male, self-governing working ranch with a liberal arts curriculum. Akira and I — and twenty-four other nineteen-year-olds — spent two years there bucking hay, branding cattle, and taking classes in Psychoanalysis and Ancient Greek. Today, we’d driven to neighboring Fish Lake Valley to cut poplars from a wet hollow to dry for firewood. At noon, we’d put away the chainsaws; at three, we’d loaded up the green branches and started home. Now, by the sun, it was already five, and the underpowered truck hadn’t inched its load even halfway up Westgarde Pass. We’d be lucky to make it back to the ranch before nightfall.

Book Burning
Maria Haras
Book Burning

Through gaps in the smoke, the California desert spread out around us. The clear air allowed the eye to travel vast distances. The hundred-acre alfalfa fields of the neighboring farms were little more than green stitches in a subtle brown patchwork. The shimmering seam of Highway 165, along with its steady trickle of eighteen-wheelers, cut diagonally across the expanse.

I started at a blurred reflection of my face. The rearview mirror was shuddering against the door; the engine’s excessive efforts must have worked the screws loose. Something to do, I thought. I felt around on the floor for my jacket: a stiff, canvas shell stained by motor oil and pocked by barbed wire, with a big rectangular pocket on each quadrant of the torso. As it had countless times before, my hand worked its way into the bottom right pocket and found the industry standard for quick repairs: the Leatherman Tool.

Among those who work with their hands, a Leatherman is as common as a fork. My father, a carpenter, keeps one on his tool belt, across the buckle from his tape measure. It’s amazing how much of the world requires needle-nose pliers — or scissors, or a knife, or a file. After I got to Deep Springs and started working with my hands every day, it didn’t take long before I could open the device with the same fluid wrist-flick I’d seen my father use. In a moment, the pliers were gripping the round-top nut, and in another, my reflection and I were sharing a steady gaze. “Nothing like a job well done,” I imagined my father saying, and watched my eyes roll in the rearview mirror — my usual response to that statement. When I was young, I just held the light. But since becoming responsible for my own work, I had been more and more inclined towards congratulating myself on little successes.

Fishing around in my jacket to return the Leatherman to the proper pocket, my hand fell on the spine of Macbeth. I had several books in the pockets, but I knew this one by feel: the cover was worn and soft. The other books — philosophy paperbacks I was reading for class — had smooth, characterless bindings. This copy of Macbeth was important. It had belonged to my grandfather. Opening to the creased page, I settled into the vinyl seat for the long ride back.

***

The night before I left for Deep Springs, I drifted in and out of the den of my parents’ house in New Jersey. They were watching The O’Reilly Factor. I was poaching books from the shelves around the TV during commercial breaks.

“Those were my father’s,” my dad said from his dent on the couch. “You better be careful with them.”

I had just taken down Macbeth and added it to one of the growing cairns on the Berber rug. The drab stacks of old spines — tawny reds, mottled browns, fading greens — were the same colors as the California desert I’d seen in pictures. On the shelves, the dusty rows looked toothless, as if I’d hit them in the mouth.

Although my father owned the books, he didn’t read them. In my mind, they still belonged to my grandfather, even though he had died before I was born. I admired him. He was a rebel and a scholar. His communist activities in college — attempting to organize unions for university employees — attracted the cold eye of the conservative administration. He was kicked out before his senior year. Working as a newscaster after his expulsion, he was blacklisted for sticking up for a fellow journalist. I always thought he had done something with his education. I thought his books deserved to be read.

“The shelves look funny,” my mother said. “Do you have to take so many?”

I looked at the copy of Faust in my hands. It was in German. I didn’t even know German.

“Yes,” I said over my shoulder as The O’Reilly Factor came back on screen. Carrying another stack of books, I stumped out of the den. For several years now it had been difficult for me to hide my disgust for their politics. The first book my father ever gave me was on my sixteenth Christmas: Bill O’Reilly: For Kids. Dizzy with anger, I had cast the book, along with its wrapping paper, into the fireplace.

***

Akira slammed on the brakes, almost jerking Macbeth from my hands. “Something’s wrong,” he said. “The wheel’s warm.”

Leaving the engine running, we leapt out of the truck and jammed our fingers into the grille to find the latch. It was almost too hot to touch. As I poked around for the metal rod to prop open the hood, Akira let out a yelp.

“Fire!” he cried, leaping into the air while flinging his arms to his face. I saw the steering column above the engine block grow blurry, like a straw dropped too quickly into a glass of water. Then I saw one tongue of orange flame. Then two. Then a little blue aura.

“Do we have an extinguisher?” I shouted. I shot around the door into the passenger side of the truck, tossing my jacket over the book on the seat to search the floor.

“No, we have to run,” he said. I didn’t move — something was tugging at me to stay. There was a hiss and a small pop. “Run!”

A minute later, I stopped, panting, at the base of the hill. Now thick black smoke was pouring from the cab. I heard the distant throb of the engine — it was still running. I didn’t know if that was good or bad. Both doors hung open like wide, gasping gills. I felt a strange momentary pride at the grandness of the smoking truck and its long trailer, as if we had landed a white, magical fish.

Then I remembered I had left my grandfather’s book in the cab.

My body responded with a lurching stride toward the burning truck. The truck emitted a hiss, and clear fluid spilled from its underbelly. Fuel. There was a pop as the back window cracked and the clear fluid on the road blushed into flame. Then I heard the roar.

In a second, the whole front end was a torch. Smoke spilled into the empty air like ink in water, curling gently into the shape of a feather pen.

***

Only after the truck had turned more black than white did I hear a flock of sirens approaching from over the hill. Soon a fleet of gray trucks came into view, their sides emblazoned “Bishop Fire Department.” They were from the closest town, more than an hour away. But as a platoon of men in yellow jackets unfurled hoses beneath flashing lights, I heard an altogether different siren from the opposite direction.

Turning around, I saw a small red pickup struggle up the hill, emitting a tinny whine. As it approached, I noticed it had a wooden barrel on the back — it looked like a pickle drum turned on its side — covered in flaking orange-red paint. The truck pulled up broadside along our burning truck, as if to engage it in a naval battle. The driver, a little beetle of a man with a full white beard, left the engine running as he scuttled around the pickup’s perimeter to a two-stroke engine attached to a pump. Yanking frantically on the pull-start to no avail, he produced an old fire extinguisher. But before he could pull the safety ring, his truck gave a shudder and began releasing gasps of white smoke. Muttering curses, he tossed the fire extinguisher through the passenger seat window, trundled on bow legs back to the driver seat, and switched off the ignition. He then slipped the car out of gear and, fixing his eyes firmly in the rearview mirror, began to roll silently backwards down the hill.

After the odd couple retreated, a futuristic vehicle from the Bishop fire department approached the burning chassis and began to coat it with soapy gray foam. If by any chance the book had survived the fire, it would never survive this dousing.

As the flames died, the damage was made clear. Every window was blown out. The melted steering wheel wept tears of its own material, like one of Dali’s clocks. Peeking out from a grayish mass of wet, charred vinyl, I spied a clump of bright metal melted to the frame. My hand went instinctively toward my right pocket, so I could grab my Leatherman and pry off the metal, but my fingers clasped a wet cotton t-shirt instead of a canvas jacket. I realized that the slag of metal was my Leatherman. I tried to pull it off with my fingers, but it was fused tight. The book wasn’t in sight.

Only the tires continued to burn, dirty and slow.

Akira sloshed through the foam from the other side of the truck. He held up a tarnished brass button from my jacket. The fire had turned it blue-green. As I put it in my back pocket, I spied a charred crimson cover peeking out from under destroyed upholstery. Macbeth was mostly gone, but what remained was spread open, suspended in the seat springs like a butterfly specimen. I reached in to grab it, and came up with a handful of soapy blackened pages. I stuffed them into my pocket, and they crumbled.

A few vehicles from Deep Springs lurched to a halt behind me. Nineteen-year-old torsos with shovels spilled out of every door. One of my classmates pressed a shovel into my hand. “The firemen say the only way to put the fires out is to smother them,” he said. The wet pages soaked into my skin through the pocket denim. I fished them out and threw them back into the cab.

Through the windshield-hole, Akira said, “It’s only a book, right?”

***

While the rest finished cleaning up, I headed back to the college to call the Bishop garage. The fireman told us we had to get the wreck off the road by nightfall. Smoke-streaked and bleary-eyed, I drove down into the valley. Bouncing over the first and second cattle guard, I passed through the mist from the sprinklers dousing the fields by the main driveway, then turned sharply toward the largest building, the only one with a reliable telephone.

I knew my father would be angry. Not about the Leatherman, but about the book. He would be sad that I had been so careless with it. I pushed away my guilt with feelings of self-righteousness: Wasn’t I the one who actually read Grandad’s books? So didn’t they as good as belong to me? Bending to tie my boots, I noticed one of the laces was fraying. My hand instinctively drifted to my hip for my Leatherman, but again it found only my t-shirt.

As I fingered the wet cotton, it occurred to me how much Deep Springs had made me like my father: the constant expectation of having the right tool, the hidden satisfaction waiting to be gleaned from a job well done. I had always thought of my journey to Deep Springs as travelling in my grandfather’s footsteps — joining a radical, intellectual commune he would have loved. But by now I was as accustomed to having a Leatherman on my hip as Dad was. Would my grandfather even have wanted to get his hands dirty the way my father did? Did he even know how light his books felt after a day’s work?

***

Hey, Dad. There was an accident.”

“Are you all right?” He was eating a sandwich, but stopped chewing. “You’re not hurt, are you?”

“I’m fine. Listen. There was a fire in one of the trucks. Everyone got out fine but a few things got lost. Like my jacket.”

“The stiff one that Uncle Marlon gave you? Too bad.”

“And the Leatherman.”

“Good little tool, isn’t it?” He took a break to swallow. “You always expect tools to last a lifetime, but they never do. You got good use out of it, yeah?”

I took a deep breath. “Listen, I also lost one of your dad’s books.”

“Which one?”

“The red one. Macbeth.”

“Well, I’m in the den now,” he said slowly, “and looking at the holes on the shelves. I was here last night, watching television, and thinking about how pleased I was that those books were finally getting some use. A book is a tool on its own, you know? I was different when I was your age. I read a bit too. And I didn’t care what happened to that book when I was traveling. I’d toss it in a pickup with all else. I liked it not just because it reminds me of my dad. It’s a good book on its own.”

“Yeah,” I mumbled into the receiver.

“Is it for school? Do you need another copy?”

“I was just reading it for extra. I’ll be all right.”

“And we’ll get you a new Leatherman.”

“Dad, you don’t have to…”

“I said ‘we.’ You’ll work for me for a day in exchange. Around the house, some plumbing. Agreed?”

“Agreed.”

***

By the time I hung up, it was evening. Despite the fleeting warmth, the gathering darkness had reduced the desert to more intimate proportions. A flatbed from the Bishop garage, just turning on its headlights, rattled over the second cattle guard with the husk of the truck on its back. As it came into view, I couldn’t suppress a smile. The rear wheels, almost untouched by the fire, poked unnaturally up in the air, like the rump of a puppy digging in a gopher hole. And the front grille had melted into something resembling a skull’s grin.

“Nothing like a job well done,” I said out loud. And though it was meant as a joke, the words sank into me without a splash. Everything was all right. The truck was insured. No one was hurt. The husk passed, and the flatbed’s taillights flickered brightly before turning out of sight toward the metal shop.

On Highway 165, the constant semis, one by one, winked their headlights into existence. Another pickup truck rumbled over the cattle guard, towing the trailer full of wood. I collapsed on my back beside the driveway, watching the constellations faintly assert themselves. The unloading, I decided, could wait until morning.

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