DODSON: The Gift of a Winter's Night
I was walking my dog in the winter dusk the other evening, admiring the early stars, when my mobile phone rang.
My first impulse was to switch it off. I rarely carry the little nuisance on these peaceful evening rambles, savoring the time to be alone in an old world without new machines.
But this time, oddly, I answered it.
"Hello, Mr. Dodson?" inquired a faintly British-sounding voice. "You don't know me, I'm afraid, but my name is Frannie Wilson. I so enjoy your writing, and I have something I would very much like to give you. Assuming you would care to have it."
"And that might that be?" I asked, pausing and looking up at the stars. They were very bright in a deep clear indigo sky. A plane was passing far overhead, its red wing light blinking as it headed north.
"A book," she replied.
She daintily cleared her throat and explained that she suffered from failing eyesight due to macular degeneration and had recently begun the bittersweet process of finding good homes for several of my most beloved volumes. That very day, Dr. John Stacey of Sandhills Community College had dropped by her place to collect more than 60 volumes from her library, including a set of the Great Books of the Western World.
She added: "These days I can only enjoy books on tape. But I just finished listening to one of your books on tape and discovered we have something in common."
I was looking up at Venus, the Evening Star, a portent both feared and loved by the ancients, trying to think what that might be.
"Antoine de Saint-Exupery's 'Wind, Sand, and Stars,'" she said.
I smiled, like a kid seeing a shooting star. "That's my favorite book!" I said.
"I gathered it might be important to you," Frannie Wilson primly replied.
A Touching Offer
French aviator and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery is best known, of course, for his celebrated "Little Prince," a mysterious tale of philosophy and wonder beloved by generations of children and their sleepy parents.
But my favorite Saint-Exupery titles -- given to me by my own father, a flier and contemporary of the author -- were "Wind, Sand and Stars," "Southern Mail," and "Flight to Arras," which the famous Frenchman published just before he disappeared on a secret reconnaissance mission for the Allies during World War II.
No trace of Saint-Exupery or his plane was found until a Mediterranean fisherman in 1984 brought up his nets and discovered a bracelet bearing the missing aviator's name on it. Three years ago, French authorities confirmed that they'd found the twisted wreckage of Saint-Exupery's Lockheed Lightning P-38 on the bottom of the Mediterranean seabed not far from the cliffs of Provence. He had just missed making it home, nose-diving into the sea.
"The copy I have originally belonged to my father, who worked in the publishing business," Frannie Wilson explained. "And I have two more books by Saint-Exupery I would love to give to you as well."
I was touched. I was speechless. I asked if 3 o'clock the next afternoon might work for her.
"That would be lovely," she said. She gave me the address. It was only a few blocks away. "Why, you could even come for tea," she proposed. "My sister Callie would enjoy meeting you, too. She is 84 and actually remembers the book being published. Do you like tea?"
"I love tea," I said, now counting my lucky stars. "And thank you very much."
"No," she said. "Thank you."
For the Love of Books
Frannie Wilson wheeled her tea trolley into the living room and asked if I would mind pouring once the tea was ready and her sister Callie arrived. Taking a seat by the window, she explained how she and husband Roy, a retired Navy captain, following a career that took them from Norfolk to San Francisco, had fallen for Southern Pines and moved here in 1997. Roy died just two years later.
"We met when Roy was at Dartmouth and I was at Mount Holyoke," Frannie remembered. "And from the beginning we had a love of books in common. I grew up in a household, you see, where books were greatly valued. Our father, Percy Albert Loring, met our mother in a bookstore in Boston. He later worked for Lippincott Publishers of Philadelphia. My sister Callie can tell you more about that."
Then she added brightly: "Ah! Here is Callie now."
I opened the door to a sturdy, cheerful, gray-haired lady who greeted me with an even more marked English accent and took a seat in a comfortable wing chair next to her younger sister. I dutifully poured the tea and learned that Callie had lived in Devon, England, for 56 years and moved here to be near her sister after her own husband's death a few years ago.
"You do that very well," Callie remarked on my tea-pouring skills.
I explained that I'd had a Scottish mother-in-law for a dozen years who trained me well.
"She was also completely mad for books," I added, "as well as opera and anything on the stage."
"How lovely," Callie said. "Did my sister Frannie tell you about her time on the stage? She played Eliza Doolittle in 'My Fair Lady' and Sarah Brown in 'Guys and Dolls.'"
Frannie sipped her tea and blushed. "Honestly," she said. "That was so long ago, Callie. Why don't you tell him about our father's passion for books."
"Oh, he adored books," the elder sister declared, smiling at a sudden memory.
"I remember once he came to me and said, 'Carolyn, what are you doing?' I calmly told him, 'Why, father, I'm knitting a pair of socks, actually.' 'Well, stop it,' he said to me rather crossly, 'and go and read a book. You should be reading!'"
The sisters laughed, and I laughed, too. I was holding Percy Loring's magnificent first edition of "Wind, Sand and Stars" and my cup of tea, marveling at the book's aged beauty. Its pages looked well loved. The book was a first American edition dating from April 1939, one of 50 copies signed by the author.
Tea and Kindness
"So you know that book well, do you?" Callie asked.
I explained how a reprinted edition of the brave Frenchman's adventures in the air between Paris and Cairo before the war had sat on a bookshelf in my bedroom for most of my childhood, until I carried it off to college. The book had vanished somewhere between my working life in Atlanta and fatherhood in rural New England. But now, like the aviator's plane, it had been found again.
I explained that my father had also been an aviator -- a trained glider pilot in World War II -- and was particularly fond of this book. There were passages from the book I'd long ago committed to memory.
"I knew these books should go to you," agreed the former Eliza Doolittle. The other two Saint-Exupery titles were a small book I'd never heard of called "The Garden" and a second edition of "Flight to Arras," the author's final book, still bound in the aging leather book cover Frannie Wilson found for it during her student days in Florence.
"Our father knew the author," Callie said, expanding as she sipped her tea. "They traveled together when Monsieur Saint-Exupery came to visit America. I believe our father may even have played some role in having these books published here."
An hour or so later, I thanked the daughters of Percy Albert Loring for their tea and kindness and took my leave, vowing to return soon to continue our bookish conversation.
In parting, I assured them both that I would to be a good caretaker of "Wind, Sand and Stars" and its shelf companions and perhaps someday pass them along to someone who would love them the way we had.
'A Sudden Joy'
The next evening, I was back walking the dog in the winter dusk.
It made me sad to think Frannie Wilson would never read another book. Several years ago, however, as her own eyes began to falter, Frannie sought out a woman named Beverly Love, who works closely with local Lions Club members and others to raise awareness of visually impaired issues, and thereby found a new calling.
Today she is part of a small but dedicated band of volunteers who work to bring comfort and support -- and books on tape -- to those who have lost or are losing their sight.
Thinking of this, I remembered a line I'd memorized years ago from "Wind, Sand and Stars."
"All of us," Saint-Exupery wrote not long before he vanished into thin air, "have had the experience of a sudden joy that came when nothing in the world had forewarned us -- a joy so thrilling that if it was born of misery we remembered even the misery with tenderness."
The stars were out again, and I couldn't help but thank them for unexpectedly bringing me two new friends who loved books as much as I did -- and drew me even closer to the little prince of the air who shaped my own view of the world.
Jim Dodson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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