Episode 23: The Five Foot Shelf


(7 March 1974) 47/2/23

Writer: John Hawkins.

Director: Ralph Waite.

Music: Arthur Morton


The Five Foot Shelf


"Looking back down the years to the great Depression, I realize now that our family was much more fortunate than most. Many things were in short supply, but we had the advantage of being able to live on the bounty of the rich Virginia country. And even more important than the gifts of the land, our family remained intact. We stayed together under one roof and were never deprived of the comfort and closeness of our mother and father. Those feelings easily made up for what we often lacked in material things".


Elizabeth finds a traveling salesman sitting on his suitcase on the side of the road. She learns that he is fixing his shoe, and he learns that her brother John-Boy reads all the time. At Ike’s store, Elizabeth is confident she is going to win the doll that is the prize for counting the number of beans in a jar as part of Ike’s contest “Guess how many”. Mr. Reed begins his sales pitch, but Ike quickly tells the salesman that he is having trouble selling goods, must sell a whole bunch of dolls at two dollars, ninety-eight cents apiece, and has a broken icebox and spoiling meat. Ike finds that Mr. Reed is selling books, and suggests he go to Charlottesville or Weston, a college town. Mr. Reed admires the doll and seems interested in one for his daughter who is seven years old (sort of like).


At the house, Elizabeth tries to convince Grandpa to build a doll bed for her new doll. Grandpa tells John that one of the sweetest words in life is “hope”, and now wonders if he’ll build the bed with straight or curved legs. John pushes Elizabeth on a tire swing, and then observes Mr. Reed walk up to the house. He tells John that he is “prepared to bring you culture, knowledge, travel, and trips to fun and wondrous places”. John informs Mr. Reed that he can’t afford the books, but lets him rest for a minute.


John drives off to Ike’s store. Olivia soon offers Mr. Reed a cup of coffee and he accepts. Inside, Mr. Reed talks about his books as John-Boy, Olivia, and Grandma listen about his five-foot shelf of Harvard Classics, the “greatest set of books in the whole world”. The set contains four hundred eighteen stories in the fifty-volume set, where one book is just the index for the other forty-nine books. When Grandma says they can’t afford the books Mr. Reed says there are “adventures locked in these pages” for only “three dollars down and a little bit per month” thereafter. Olivia agrees to buy the books, thinking that it will save John-Boy from buying college books and help the other children, too. When Mr. Reed isn’t sure when the books will arrive, he agrees to give them one of the books. John-Boy and Olivia are very happy, as is Mr. Reed. Grandma thinks John won’t be as happy.


John works on the broken icebox at Ike’s store. He asks Horace how the hunting is, but Horace says he is no longer hunting because his wife says his venison tastes “gamey”. Horace also tells John that he squandered his money when he bought all those books, and doesn’t appreciate sending that “drummer” over to his house.


John returns home to find Olivia and Grandma scrubbing the kitchen floor. Olivia admits she bought fifty books. John is upset, sending Ben and Jason outside to do their chores. Olivia says it is very important to her, John-Boy, and the children, and that she used her egg money for the down payment. Olivia gets John a cup of coffee as he cools down. John learns that Olivia also asked Mr. Reed to sleep in the barn for a few days. He is at Ike’s right now sending in the order. But, at the store Mr. Reed is buying his daughter, Serena, the doll with the proceeds. He tells Ike that he lives in New York, where his company is based. He walks back toward the house with the doll box in one hand, and his suitcase in the other.


Ike counts the beans in the jar, ready to award the prize to the correct guesser. John-Boy tells Mr. Reed that the book is fascinating, not believing the man burned down his house. John-Boy figures out that Mr. Reed hasn’t actually read the books, and wonders how he can sell books he hasn’t read. Mr. Reed admits he’s a printer by trade, but due to the Depression had to take the only job he could find. It’s the first time he’s been away from his family, the first time selling anything.


Grandpa comes into the barn to thank Mr. Reed for the books, and hopes one of the books will be a book of poetry. Mr. Reed gets a book of poetry from his case and gives it to Zeb, who invites him to supper. But Mr. Reed is tired and wants to turn in. Ike drives up in his motorcycle with Elizabeth in the sidecar with her new doll that she won. They gather and celebrate Elizabeth’s joy. Mr. Reed looks on from the doorway of the barn.


The next day John-Boy and Ike talk in front of the gas pumps about how Mr. Reed almost fell over with hunger the first day he saw him, and then the second time had enough money to buy his little girl a doll. After finding the doll box, John-Boy tells his father that he thinks Mr. Reed stole their money to buy the doll. John says he will deal with the problem, and that the man must “have his day” to explain himself.


Elizabeth brings out a plate of food for Mr. Reed’s supper. As he shaves, Elizabeth asks him what his little girl will name her new doll. He doesn’t know. Mr. Reed than goes inside and thanks the family for everything. John invites him to listen to the radio with the family. With too much static on the radio for “Fibber McGee and Molly” Grandpa decides to read from the poetry book. He reads the poem Jenny Kissed Me by Leigh Hunt (1784-1859). When he finishes, John-Boy realizes Mr. Reed has left.


John confronts the man in the barn. Mr. Reed says he got a money order from Ike Godsey, but John knows better. John states that he stole the money from his wife. Mr. Reed says he has traveled over 4,000 miles this year and did not put away enough money to pay a present for his daughter’s birthday. John says, “It doesn’t matter to you who pays for it?” Mr. Reed says, “No”. John demands, “Take your doll and get on out of here!” Mr. Reed leaves, but down the road, he stops and thinks.


Grandpa tells John-Boy how a knarled tree can make a beautiful piece of wood, sometimes how a person can change. John-Boy thinks it applies to trees, not people, saying that the wood he is staining for the bookshelf is not needed because, “We’ve been stung!” John walks to the barn to see Mr. Reed returning. He asks if he could talk to him and his wife. They go inside. Olivia tells Mr. Reed that he is not welcome in their house. Mr. Reed explains why he did what he did, and asks for their forgiveness. He returns the money to Olivia as he says it was wrong of him to do this at their expense. Olivia looks at John, as John-Boy looks at both of them. Olivia decides to still buy the books. She holds out her hands to Mr. Reed, and he smiles for the first time. As Mr. Reed leaves Elizabeth runs after him with her doll, knowing his daughter will not get a doll for her birthday. But, she is unable to give away her doll, and only says goodbye to Mr. Reed.


In about ten days a box of books arrive and the family inspect them all. John reads from a book by Richard Henry Dana called Two Years Before the Mast (and Twenty-Four Years After).


"The salesman was right about one thing—the wit and wisdom of the ages were contained in those books, and many of the voyages we took were no less memorable for having been enjoyed through the written word".


Mary Ellen: It was, too, Michelangelo who painted chapels I know it.

Jason: You're wrong Mary Ellen, it was that Cellini feller.

John-Boy: It was Michelangelo, Jason.

Mary Ellen: See, smarty.

Jason: Well, I can't be expected to know everything.

Jim Bob: Something I want to know.

Elizabeth: What's a chapel?

John: Like a church, honey.

Elizabeth: Oh, that's nice. Goodnight Daddy, goodnight Mama.

Olivia: Goodnight, Elizabeth. What was it you wanted to know, Jim Bob?

Jim Bob: Is Mr. Selini or Mickelino going to paint our church?

Olivia: Either one, we're not proud!

John-Boy: Mama!

Olivia: 'Night, John-Boy.

John-Boy: Goodnight!



Grandpa reads the poem: Jenny Kissed Me by Leigh Hunt (1784-1859): “Jenny kissed me when we met, Jumping from the chair she sat in; Time, you thief! who love to get Sweets into your list, put that in. Say I'm weary, say I'm sad; Say that health and wealth have miss'd me; Say I'm growing old, but add-Jenny kiss'd me.” The poem was found from: http://www.potw.org/archive/potw57.html.

John-Boy reads from the book Two Years Before the Mast (And Twenty-four Years After) by Richard Henry Dana (1841). Information can be found at: http://www.narrativepress.com/Reviews/TwoYearsBeforeMast.htm.


Also appearing:

Ike Godsey (Joe Conley); Mr. George Reed (Ben Piazza), Horace (Wilford Brimley), Elmer Bob (Ancel Cook), Little Girl (Anne Elizabeth Beesley).


(synopsis written by William Atkins and edited by Arthur Dungate)