Part 1: Libraries Change Lives: How the Big Read Helped Veterans Heal

58,286 names. 9 from Elgin, 6 from St. Charles, 6 from Carpentersville, 5 from Crystal Lake, 3 from Cary, 3 from Batavia, 2 from Geneva, 2 from Streamwood, 1 each from Algonquin, Gilberts, Hampshire, Hanover Park, Huntley, Wayne. Young men, mostly, age 17-28.

Now Charles stood before me, a small man with large sorrowful brown eyes. “Volunteer registration is at the Customer Service Registration Desk in the lobby,” I’d told the phone-calling staff. “He wants to talk to you,” she’d replied, “in person, to volunteer.”

It was the first hint of how inadequate I was for the job of leading The Big Read. Sweat beaded on his furrowed forehead under a faded Vietnam Veteran cap pushed back so he could see me. Hands pumping into fists, releasing and pumping again repeatedly hung at the ends of arms straight at his sides. “I want to help,” he said softly.

“Thank you…” I started but my stomach lurched into my throat choking off my vocal cords. Listening was the thing to do, my body seemed to know innately. Only listen. Respectfully. Compassionately. “Eighteen of my buddies are on that Wall.” His eyes filled with tears, and so did mine. One bomb. 18 gone. In ‘Nam. He was just a kid. Carrying grief, gut-wrenching grief, for so long had grown up like a tree in a broken sidewalk. He’d never been to Washington DC to see The Wall. So The Wall That Heals, the half-scale replica from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund was traveling to him, to Elgin, to the Illinois veterans who were ready to see it, to feel it and to begin let go of their pain, at least a little.

There would be hundreds more, like Charles, who wanted to help. Some wore black leather vests, bandanas on their heads, and road motorcycles in the motorcade escort when The Wall That Heals came to town on Tuesday afternoon on September 17. Some pitched in to set up, to take a shift to guard The Wall that Heals over its 24 hour period of 4 days, or to attend the ceremonies. Many vets greeted visitors, and fellow vets. Others stood off at distance, just watching, sometimes weeping.

When the 3 ladies from the American Association of University Women approached me in September 2012 we couldn’t have imagined the result. “My annual budget is submitted for the year already,” I told them as they explained their desire for a “community read.” Providence is more powerful than library budgets, I discovered. The project unfurled itself like a fern frond on time lapse motion film. Many fronds actually – in springtime – simultaneously on the same stem. Alive. Organic. Natural. Beautiful. I was simply one gardener in awe.

The stars aligned in September 2012. A constellation of partners formed around the decision to read The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien and open up a 40-year-old wound. A deep wound. The Vietnam War. We began to craft the National Endowment for the Arts’ The Big Read grant. Emotions percolated and spurted. “I was a protesting peace-loving hippie.” “I am a vet. I can’t talk about it.” “I’m so angry—still.” “I had a brother… a grandfather… a son….” My belief in libraries as leaders in community transformation, as safe places, as centers for gathering stories, as architects for the future, as galvanizers of community Good, was about to be tested.

Continue reading Part 2 of this powerful narrative tomorrow on how libraries transform communities.

Miriam Anderson Lytle is the Division Chief, Community Services & Program Development at the Gail Borden Public Library District in Elgin, IL.

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