Books, books, books. My home is filled with them and so is my head, especially when it comes to writing about my dad. He was surrounded by books; not because he was a scholar, but because he had ingenuity in bucketloads when it came to earning his family’s keep. It was post war; his army service done. So what does a man do for a living, with no job, little education, with a wife and four children to look after? Why, he sets up a lending library service of course. He started small, with a stationary library in Gloucester Street, Silverstream (north of Wellington). And being the entrepreneur he was, the idea of a travelling library soon followed.
Amongst my father’s other self-taught skills was sign-writing, which he applied to the side of his wonderful 1926 Chrysler truck. With the vehicle up and running, books were fed from the depot to the travelling library and off Dad went, hunting out new readers for his novels, comics and magazines. He didn’t have to travel far. Following the war, there were camps set up around the district, mostly for railway crews working on the Rimutaka Tunnel and the Hutt railway projects, in Mangaroa (now Maymorn) to the north and Manor Park to the south. People were struggling, with isolation and lack of transport, so a library that lent books for a token fee was looked forward to immensely.
As children, we didn’t find it odd that our father ran this travelling library service; it was a time for many vendors selling various wares on wheels. We loved travelling in the back of the truck, where we pushed screwed up lolly papers and other detritus through knot holes in the wooden floorboards and waved from the small square back windows to the amusement of following drivers.
In memory of my father and his truck, I include a chapter excerpt from my (now named) memoir The Sum of Jack McPhee.
Swings, Roundabouts and Rollercoasters
Jack woke, feeling like shit, his back sore, and he sure as hell didn’t feel like the library run. The door groaned as he shoved through with the mattress and dumped it in the hall. Silence. At least he’d be first in the bathroom for a change. A lick and a promise was all he was good for – and yesterday’s clothes.
The motor was cold. He was about to haul on the choke when Sophia knocked on the passenger’s window. “I want to come with you.”
“Up you get then,” he said, reaching for her hand and pulling her in. “Mum not need you this morning?” Sophia didn’t reply, and when he looked over, she was sniffing back tears.
“I’m pleased you want to join your old dad.”
“You’re not old.”
“Thanks,” he said. “You can be my helper.”
He headed over the Silverstream bridge and up the main road to Upper Hutt. The truck drubbed on the road, the knot holes in the floorboards enriching the sound. It was oddly comforting. He pulled in at the bakery, taking Sophia with him. She stuck her nose close to the glass cover, where Lamingtons and Butterfly cakes were on show. “Choose one Sophia.” She pointed to the butterfly cakes.
“One of those and a Fly Cemetery,” he said. The hair-netted woman screwed up her face. “Oh sorry, I meant Fruit Mince Slice.”
“You always say that Dad.”
“It gets them every time Sophia,” he laughed. “Every time.” For now, he was happy: with his daughter beside him, the freedom the travelling library could bring. He finished his Fly Cemetery, engaged the gears and glanced at Sophia, licking cream off her fingers.
“How much is that doggie in the window?” He sang.
“Wait Dad.” Sophia swallowed, and answered, “The one with the wag g i ly tail.”
“How much is the doggie in the window?”
“I do hope that doggie’s for sale.”
“What do you want Sophia?”
“I don’t want a bunny or a kitty.”
“I don’t want a parrot that talks. So what do we want Sophia?”
“A DOG WITH A WAG G I LY TAIL!”
“You have cheered me up no end,” he said, turning the truck towards the hills …’