A Love of Books: The Post Library

Every post had at least one library for book lovers and a little piece of America in the form of magazines and newspapers.

I still remember the old Recreation Center in Bad Kissingen, which was situated next to the main gate into Daley Barracks and just across the road from the movie theater. It is now part of a German telecommunications company but when I lived in BK it housed the library/recreation center facilities for the post.

The library occupied the left hand section of the building while the recreation part was in the right hand wing. The middle section housed the main entrance into the building along with the toilet block to the left and, to the right, a series of sound proofed booths and rooms which were always in use by musical minded soldiers playing live music after working hours.

We would often stop by and listen to the young GIs practicing with their instruments. They usually played R&R, R&B or Country & Western. There were some very talented and accomplished players stationed in BK.

I made use of the library almost from the beginning of our stay in BK. Due to initial problems that I had with my reading skills, I was actively encouraged to go to the library in order to expand my vocabulary and improve my reading, both by my teachers and by my parents. My father was always going to the library and taking out various books to read. Most soldiers had plenty of spare time after work and many used this chance to read. Along with the movie theater and the NCO and EM clubs, the post library was a popular off duty destination.

My father was very well read and passed his passion for books onto me. The library was well stocked and had a section for children which I used to begin with, moving on to the teen section as I grew older before, finally, moving on to the adult section by time we were ready to leave BK. The two librarians were both local Germans who had been working there since the 1960s.

They were both middle aged, one was a woman whose sister worked in the kindergarden, the other was a man with thinning gray hair. Both were friendly and spoke English quite well. I don’t recall his name but the lady librarian was Frau Polk. The library was open six days a week, closed on Sundays. Besides books, the library received a selection of US magazines every month which were displayed in an small alcove.

Unlike Stateside libraries, we didn’t get any American newspapers, the only papers available were the Stars & Stripes and the Crusader, which covered the BK, Schweinfurt and Wurzburg MILCOM areas. You could also listen to music records. There was a record player in a corner, you listened to the records using headphones. There were leather easy chairs for sitting on, they were real comfortable.

I remember that the librarians used to go around and wake any soldier that had fallen asleep in the chairs: reading was allowed but not snoozing! The place always had GIs sitting around, usually listening to records or reading magazines and comics.

Beside lending out books, the library offered a book/comic trade. By the lending desk were a pile of paperbacks and comics you could swap with a paperback or comic of your own. I would often use this facility, bringing in some old comics I no longer wanted and swapping them for ones I hadn’t read before. However, more often than not I’d just take a handful of comics and read them in a quite corner of the library.

Sometimes a comic would be slipped under my jacket and smuggled home but on the whole I didn’t abuse the system and, except for a short while when it was stopped in 1978, as the librarians didn’t know whether the trading practice was actually legal, the trading went on for years.

By the time I was entering into my teens I also began to trade paperbacks in addition to the comics. Even now, after thirty years, I still own a few battered old paperbacks which I traded back there in Bad Kissingen, including a couple of old Isaac Asimov science books.

One thing I remember about the comics was that they weren’t necessarily up to date or even recent. My favorite comics I read were 1960s ones, especially the Lost in Space comics and the Magnus 3000AD: Robot Fighter comics. These were a good six to ten years old by time I read them in the late 1970s. Goodness knows where they came from. I also liked the Adam Strange character and how he would travel between the Earth and his planet.

My fondest memories of going to the library was when I went with Dad. We would have supper first at home, afterwards we would walk to the library together. We would spend about an hour there, I looking at the kids / teen section, my Dad checking out the new books. We would then head home again, each with a handful of books under our arms.

We had done the same when we lived in Hanau, though there we had to drive to Pioneer Kaserne from our apartment. It was a real bonding experience for us, I guess much like some fathers taking their sons fishing. I then read a little to my Dad as we were instructed to by my teachers at school. My father valued education and followed the advice given to him by my teachers, ensuring that my reading standards improved.

I still fondly remember the library in Hanau, it was on Pioneer Kaserne. You drove thru the main gate and it was in the first big barrack building to the left. It was on the second ground overlooking the grass area which had the flagpole on it, and the static display of the field cannons, just in front of the main gate. You went up the staircase and down a dim corridor.

I still remember the glossy cream and green paint on the walls of the corridor and those creepy pipes hanging up on the ceiling. Dad took me with him a few times and I got my first taste of taking out books, though at first I wanted to keep them, not really appreciating the system of book lending yet! I also remember being a patient in the 97th. General Hospital in Frankfurt and of using the hospital library there while I was admitted.

1972 was the International Year of the Book. This was followed by various initiatives at the library to encourage more active participation in the use of facilities there, such as the National Library Week Program. One event that I attended at the library, in about 1974, was the Magic Tree Reading Program. This was held in the summer vacation and involved attending reading workshops at the library. It was organized by the Special Services Library Department which dealt with all the military libraries.

For a week we would go to the library in the morning and participate in reading books with the guidance of the librarians and a team of volunteers, or of having stories read to us by them. At the end of the program those who followed it all the way thru, of whom I was one, received an award of merit certificate signed by the army librarian, in my case Frau Polk.

I loved books from an early age, there were always books at home and I would receive books on my birthday and on Christmas day. I not only enjoyed reading them but I loved their feel and smell. Most of the actual library books were hardbacks with stiff covers and tactile cream pages and with a distinctive aroma to them. I still have some books from the library, which I ‘borrowed’, sitting in my bookcase, I can see them as I write this. I just need to open them and instantly I’m transported back to the US Army Library of Hanau or Bad Kissingen.

I enjoyed looking at the covers of the books, especially of the Science Fiction ones. I loved the rockets, spacemen and monsters depicted on the covers even if I never actually read the contents of the books themselves! One cover that intrigued my mind was a strange, nightmarish and surreal landscape full of strange beings. Though I cannot recollect what book the cover belonged to, and I never actually read it, I would often take it off the shelf just to look at the disquieting scene of desolation. The fact that the Science Fiction section was at the far end corner of the library, out of view and in a dimly lit area, made the picture even more disturbing.

Years later, in adulthood, I discovered that the cover was taken from the painting Europe after the Rain by Max Ernst. I also liked the war stories book covers, especially any covers with warplanes shooting up either other planes or shooting at ships; the air / sea battles of Midway were my favorite subject matter.

I also spent many happy hours reading the magazines that were available. I used to read old back copies of The National Geographic Magazine, some going back to the early 1950s. The other magazine I used to read was The Science Digest, it was always full of interesting articles. Guns & Ammo was another favorite read.

Many of the books that I read were out of date by quite a few years. Some books went back to the forties, though most of the older books dated back to the fifties, still they were a good twenty years old by time I read them. It was fun going through the teen books from the fifties as we were all into fifties culture because of the Grease musical, it felt like actually being there reading the old teenage advice books, looking at the old Scout handbooks, etc.

I also loved the old space books, full of these fantastic space scenes of Mars and Jupiter and big wheel like space stations. I could spend, literally, hours there just glancing through these old books and soaking up that fifties atmosphere.

I also enjoyed the actual lending process itself. Once you had selected your books, you took them up to the desk and handed them to the librarian. I always enjoyed writing my name onto the lending card which the librarian took out of a little sleeve on the back cover and which was then stamped with the due by date. This was long before electronic lending systems came into use.

The lending card was kept at the desk in a wooden rack. If you were late in returning your book you got a fine, up to a dollar depending how long overdue the book was. Sometimes you were given bookmark with the date the book was due printed on it. Once this transaction was completed, you went home to enjoy reading your books. I must have gone through this procedure a hundred times and I always felt somewhat grown up signing for a book and the responsibility that it entailed.

I often wondered what happened to all the books from the libraries after the military pulled out of Germany. I recently found out that in most cases the entire stock of books went to German libraries in Eastern Germany, after the unification of Germany.

The books from Daley Barracks went to a library in Erfurt in the old East Germany. I guess that after the fall of the Iron Curtain there was an appetite to learn English, so it is nice to think that some of the books I read years ago are perhaps still being read now.

 

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3 Comments
  1. Alex, if you change a few post names this would describe my own library experiences.

    I think the library also served as a sanctuary and a place for us Military Brats to have some alone time or to work together on term papers, though I think I spent more time by myself in the library than I did with friends.

    It occurs to me that there must be a lot of card catalog somewhere since all libraries now have gone over to computers. It was a great experience to go through the card catalog and find what books were in the library. It was like a mission of sorts.

    Thanks for the memory jolt!

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  2. I remember being stationed in Burma.  No TV, no radio I could understand.  The library was everything to me.  One day a person at the entrance barred me with his arm.  “No foreigners allowed in the library!”

    I was devastated but, that is something you learn.  *You* are the foreigner.  It makes us more tolerant and understanding.  It also helps us appreciate the freedoms we have.

    To me, libraries are sacred places.  Even old out of date libraries have their charm as you described.

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  3. Alex,

    thanks for that long posting. I was a “local” in Kissingen, born and raised there and went to school just across the street from the barracks (in that ochre-yellow building across from the baseball pitch and heli pad). We used to slip into the officers’ club where the music was played. Yes, we got kicked out regularly, but it was worth it: It was was my initiation to soul and R&B. I still hear the funky music today!

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