The Bucket Brigade

By Ty Russell

When I was three I fell in love. I’m a writer, so my retrospection is probably clouded with nostalgia, but I think that this is how it all, everything I am, began.

There was a woman walking down the streets of a quiet Florida town, a coffee-colored book bag with leather straps hanging loosely from her elbow, holding the hand of her curly-haired son. She walked silently and the little boy imitated her crisp steps and held his own empty bag under a tiny, milk-white arm. For each step she took, the little boy took three.

This would eventually become a familiar sight for the families in our neighborhood. But this was the first time. The first of many steps, the first in a series of events that would carve a man out of the lives of ten thousand others.

This was the day my mother first took me to the public library.

We walked through the front door and the librarian had a stuffed owl perched on the brim of her black felt hat. I hid behind my mother’s leg (I have since learned not to fear librarians, but rather marvel at them, for they are some of the most remarkable creatures in God’s creation, but for then, I was scared). She kindly directed us to the children’s section, and within 20 minutes, I had stuffed both our bags full of picture books on dinosaurs. I stood there open-mouthed like a baby bird, watching as the librarian, Miss Alexis, opened the front cover, slid in the date card, and gently shut it again, a process that, for some undiagnosed reason, still fascinates me.

We were back in three days.

In a month, I had the dinosaur section memorized, but I kept checking them out, reading them, rereading them, eight, nine, ten times. It was free, after all. I moved on to books on space, books on pirates. I grew. We moved. Changed libraries. I found new books on dinosaurs and memorized them, too. Soon I graduated to the upstairs where they kept the novels and the grown-up books. It was there that I would find the real treasures.

To me, the process of intellectual growth is a lot like a bucket brigade. We learn from, are influenced by, or just flat-out steal from someone who came before us. We receive a bucket full of water. And it is our responsibility to pass it on, to be a teacher, to send it toward the fire. Books are the ultimate method of this. A man can write a book and print it himself, sell it himself and distribute it himself. A book is cheap and personal. A book can be easily concealed beneath a coat. A book is just a few sheets of paper stuck in between two thicker ones. Small and simple. And yet in a book, a man can pour out everything he’s ever loved, anything he’s ever feared, seen, smelled, or tasted. A book is an intimate conversation of knowledge, the easiest and most enjoyable way to learn.

Upstairs, I found a million buckets full of water.

Fifteen years later, I am still wading through the water, my own empty bucket in hand, searching, choosing, taking a few handfuls out of some buckets and picking up others to pour their contents into my own. I write because it’s freedom and because I have been molded from words. I am a conglomeration of all the people and ideas whose pages I have once turned or dog-eared. I am, as I once heard it called, a collection of various smokes.

As a writer, I want to pass on enough droplets to future generations so that one day a boy like me will have something fresh to put in his pail. I want to do my part to ensure that the ideas from which I have formed myself continue on for generations after I do. But no matter what comes from writing, I am just another step in the fire drill, one link in a far greater chain of changes. Everything I ever learn I will one day pass on like water in a bucket.


Ty Russell’s work has been published in Apiary MagazineThe Pennsylvania Gazette, Phantom KangarooPeregrineSilver, and is a nominee for the 2011 Rhysling Award. He lives in north central Pennsylvania with his wife and their children.

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