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Keys, Books, and Rabbits

On Principle, v10n3

June 2002

by Peter W. Schramm

Ashland. May 24, 2002. Both realtors were present. Both deals had been cut. Both houses changed hands. We sold the house we had been living in for the last fourteen years and we bought a fine old brick house in town, on Broad Street. As the realtor representing the former owners of the house on Broad Street handed me the keys to our new house, our realtor, Rob Ward, asked that I now hand over our keys to the new owners of the Rockinghorse Ranch.

I panicked. Haltingly I explained that I didn’t have the keys. I wasn’t even sure where they were. Questions flew at me from all quarters. I was forced to admit that in all the years we lived on our six-acre horse ranch, no door was ever locked. When I got the deed to the ranch (with the keys) in the summer of 1988, I took the keys and—as best as I could recollect—tossed them into the back of my desk drawer at work. I haven’t seen those keys in fourteen years, I said. I never used them. I guess they must be still there.

Obviously, this was a shocking admission. Clarification was demanded. I explained that one of the reasons we had moved here (from California, via Washington) was for the peace of mind. In Southern California we had been burglarized. Someone had broken into our house in the middle of the night. He had tried all the doors and windows. Because they were locked, he tossed a brick through the living room window—this is what woke us all—grabbed Vicki’s purse off the coffee table and ran out. I pursued him with a knife in hand until I came to my senses and realized that I had better stay inside in case there was someone else in the house. We called the police. The robber was never found.

So when we decided to come to Ashland, I saw no reason to ever lock our house. And I was right. No one ever entered without our permission. We even left it unlocked when we went away for weeks at a time. Our faith in our fellow small town citizens was justified. We have always felt safe here.

I eventually hunted down the unused keys and delivered them to the new owner. I hope they work. I have no way of knowing. I am not even sure they are the right keys, but they were the only ones in my desk drawer. Maybe it doesn’t matter, maybe they won’t use them either.

Moving a household (even just a few miles) is the kind of labor one can justly despise. This is as close to Hell as I ever want to get. There is the packing and the lifting. Then there is the discovery that much of the tons of things you have accumulated over the years are really not worth keeping. There are strangely titled boxes with names like, “Bulgarian elections, 1989,” “Doctoral dissertation notes, 1978,” “London School of Economics, 1976,” “Lectures, notes, California State University, 1985,” “Estonia lectures, 1991-94.” These are boxes that have never been opened, and probably never will be. They made a heavy contribution to the local recycling office.

Then there are my books, thousands of them. I had started accumulating books when I was in my early teens. I had always made a little money (at first by washing dishes in my parents’ restaurant) and instead of spending it on cars or clothes (which, to those who know me will note, I still don’t!) I would buy books. There was something special about owning and reading your own books. I never liked to use libraries. Perhaps it was a natural reaction to the communist propaganda of my youth, but I thought that some things shouldn’t be shared. I liked to own the books that I read. I liked to read and fondle them, keep them, set them back on their shelf, sometimes to let them fall open to where they may and read into them again. I fancied that they became friends and I just couldn’t bear to part with them.

But I had a problem in those days. I would have to purchase my books in secret. You see, my father—not a bookish man by disposition—thought that spending money on books was foolishness itself. Why spend money on something you could get for nothing at the local library? So the books I purchased I had to hide, at first. Eventually, I had accumulated enough of them to think that they should be in their rightful place on the now empty shelves.

So at about age sixteen, I started putting a few out at a time. The next day I would put out a few more, and so on. As I was doing this, my father would periodically peer into my room to say something or other. To my relief he didn’t seem to take note of the ever growing numbers of books until one day he peered in and said, “You know son, books are just like rabbits,” and he moved on.

Well, when you’re sixteen your father doesn’t seem to be very smart. I remember sitting there wondering why God had burdened me with such a foolish and incomprehensible father. What could he have possibly meant by “books are like rabbits”? Although I tried to put the remark out of my mind, I couldn’t. Days went by and his comment gnawed at me. Finally, I couldn’t stand it, so I asked him what he meant. He said this: “Well, books are like rabbits because when you place them next to one another, they multiply quickly.” That’s all he ever said about my books. I took this as a tacit approval of my odd habits and I then placed them all on their rightful shelves. And they continued multiplying. And last week I had a lot of rabbits to move. And they have all arrived safely at the house on Broad Street. No doubt they will continue to act like rabbits. But I don’t mind because they are my friends, and, besides, I am never moving again.

My daughter Becky and I were coming back to our new house from a brief walk around the block when she said, “Gee, Dad, it’s so nice being in town, having neighbors, being able to walk to shops. So this is what civilization is like.” I didn’t tell her that I had not yet lost the keys.

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