That Christmas, I also got a book… as usual. As I unwrapped it, I could see it had a shinny cover, but was a much larger size than anything I had seen from March Twain. The cover was a bit mysterious with a variety of illustrations… a chemist… a piece of chalk… a compass… a crab… a grandfather clock.
It was one volume of “The Golden Book Encyclopedia”… just one. And not even volume one! Was this the start of a set? Where were the rest? At this rate, it would take the next 16 years for me to get the complete set one volume at a time. “Maybe mom ordered the rest and they would arrive some time soon by mail,” I thought.
The book I held in my hands was “Book 4: Chalk toCzechoslovakia.” That was it: one card pulled from the middle of the deck. The good news was I didn’t have to read it as I quickly learned what reference books were all about. I would have to hope any report I would be assigned in school after Christmas would fall within this part of the letter “C” in the alphabet. If my assignment were about “California,” I would be out of luck.
That book haunted me for years. When I moved away to college, I took it with me for safekeeping. Unfortunately, I lost it somewhere along the way in all the moves to different apartments.
After I got married, I told my wife about it. She suggested I look for a copy in garage sales to replace what had been so dear to me. At least I could have a copy again on my bookshelf. So, I embarked on a quest to find another copy. I visited every moving sale and thrift store I came across. At times, I would find a few volumes from the Golden Book set, but not “Book 4: Chalk toCzechoslovakia.”
I kept hunting, forcing my wife to stop at tag sales and used bookstores. She soon was sorry she ever suggested this mission. Then, I began to find a copy here and there and started to collect them. What for? … I wasn’t sure. Was I trying to reconnect with my childhood through a book that I regretted getting as a Christmas president in the first place? I didn’t know what was compelling me. Once, I haggled with a homeowner who was selling all his stuff to move to Florida. He had a complete set of The Golden Book Encyclopedia from 1959 (the only year it was produced). The price he had on it was $10. I said, “But, all I want is Book4.”
He said, “I can’t sell you just one volume… That would make the rest of the set worthless.” He wouldn’t budge on the price. So, I handed him the ten bucks, pulled Book 4 from the group, and dropped the rest in his trashcan as I headed for my car.
The Christmases came and went, and friends and family would find copies of “Book 4: Chalk toCzechoslovakia” and buy them for me as Christmas presents. It became a longstanding family joke. I guess I amassed the largest collection of Book 4s in the world. The running joke never seemed to end.
One day, while browsing through a rummage sale in a church basement in Bridgehampton, I found what would have to be my last Book 4. I had to kick this habit. It was part of a group, five volumes from the set, each with a sticker price of 25 cents.
I wasn’t going to buy it. I was done. I already had a complete set, so to speak, 16 copies of “Chalk toCzechoslovakia.” But, it is near impossible for me to walk away from a Book 4. I decided this had to be my last one. I gave the attendant the quarter, and walked out into the bright sunshine of a very hot summer day.
I got into my car and put the Book 4 on the seat next to me. Before starting the car, I reached over and caressed the book.