Reprise: Of Memories and Hopes and Golden Dreams

Once upon a time, there was a strange farmer of Erehwon. He gathered his curiosities, his precious things–momentary objects that held his attention and delight–and hoped others might wander down his lonesome road and share his fascination with the ordinary.

Click to enlarge

They came at random, sometimes rather sizable crowds of them, and a few exclaimed and were delighted, and some returned often and regularly. Some where changed by having seen up close the myriad works of nature and light, of clouds, of storms and seasons that the farmer set before them.

He laid these things out expectantly-mere things, some onlookers imagined–but each was a story, and each story was a memory and a meaning to the foolish man.

And so, over the years, when fewer came, and then none, it was not the same of a morning. He still wandered among his amazements but he did not often gather them, and of those, he almost never laid them out for others to see. For there were so few that he felt alone, and his stories and meanings for him only. Life was good, but it was diminished, because he still remembered the gifts he once gave, so appreciated and approved, once upon a time. He thought of the friends he had made, whose names he could barely now remember.

And yet, now and then even today,  some pattern in tree bark or glint off moving waters or bird call or memory of the smell of earth will urge him to lay out his boards again along the creek road. And has done so this morning.

He had come upon a wonderful village of threaded webs, separate but close, isolated but connected by the thinnest of dew-beaded tightropes. In the wet grass, as he so often did, he imagined. He saw in these tattered webs tight aggregates of neurons, each synapsing cluster a concept, a siloed understanding, an aggregate idea or realization. He so often searched for those almost invisible threads that, discovered, would make him shout AHA! in the thrill of creative connection.

It was the possibility of sharing creative connection between disparate things on his roadside bench that woke him up each morning, expectant and hopeful of the alchemy of object and language, searching among his curios to find what he called the “so what” in everyday things like spider webs and blossoms and one more picture of a familiar light-and-shadow turn of his road or creek.

And so life goes on, the buzz of conversation barely audible to him in some distant tavern in an altogether different kind of stopping place for travelers along the loud and hurried webs of surface travel and talk.

Winter is coming. It is the time for the old farmer to draw the curtains on the chaos and confusion beyond Middle Earth and to go back over all his  klediments and commonplace jottings and scraps of wonder, revisiting like old friends the emulsions of light and memory he has stored and saved, stories unspoken.

He lives on. And with what is left of his bones and his wits, he will weave what he might from the webs of wonder his eyes and his ears and his heart have laid out for him, even so, on his slow road. And we shall see what lies around the bend.

Strange Farmer of Erewhon— a blogger’s Allegory from the early years of Fragments (original version 2005.)

Fold-Down Ink-Well Desks. And Sweater Fuzz

school desks old fashioned

This was the first Story Challenge I put up on my high school’s 50th reunion page. It got no love. So I put it up here–again–for a few blog passersby. Turns out I had told this tale on the blog in 2009. I repost it with the near certainty that nobody who reads it this time will remember. 

The Challenge:

Tell your best WHS teacher tale. It should be mostly true. Relate a time you got away with something, didn’t get away with something or were profoundly educated or severely instructed in the moment by something  a teacher said or did. 

_______________________________

This wrought iron and maple classroom desk pictured above was pretty much standard issue at my high school, but for some reason from all the classes where I parked it behind such a desk, what this picture makes me remember in particular is Ms. Looney’s AP English class.

My desk was the first one in front and hard against the teacher’s desk. Ms. Looney (who to our amazement went on later to become a Mrs.) was fond of holding up a newspaper to read while we worked on classroom assignments.

One day for reasons I will never know, in a moment of ennui (a word we learned in her class) I took the notion to pick fuzz from a thick green mohair sweater and launch it from my cupped hands with a mighty puff. The fuzzy tuft would lift above the top of the newspaper and settle somewhere beyond the page in the vicinity of the teacher’s nose.

I repeated this several times that day, incited by a growing audience behind me. Ms Looney never noticed. But when she finally lowered her newspaper, her teacher’s bun was festooned with a kind of Spanish Moss. This visage was the source of snickers for some and a combined dread and pride for the perp.

How is it that we survive, any of us, with such stupid notions of the hilarious that put us at such risk for retribution. Thankfully we don’t often get what’s coming to us. And besides, these things make for such indelible memories, don’t they?

And I have to think that somewhere–in an antique store in Idaho maybe–there’s a fold down desk of hard maple and ornate black iron that bears my initials, tiny and etched in pencil– not pocketknife. I was mildly mischievous but these two confessions pretty much sum up my WHS walk on the wild side. You?

NOTE: There will be a lump or two of my Juicy Fruit under the left side of the fold-up seat.

To Us a Child is Born

housesnow580

“The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars and used the Lord’s name in vain. They hit little kids and cussed their teachers and set fire to Fred Shoemaker’s old broken down tool house.”

The year our daughter turned twelve, she was the narrator for the community college performance of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever”. The very next year, we moved to the country. To our dismay, our new home was just down the hill from that community’s own Herdman kids.

Our little farm bordered the cemetery of a tiny church. On a good Sunday, forty souls warmed the sanctuary—all of them from five families. They had lived in the farming community and gone to the little brick church for generations. We were the rare newcomers, and they warmly took us in.

Across the gravel road from the church, the shell of a one room school house decayed on the crest of the hill. Socks and overalls hung from clotheslines strung from its corners. Chickens found shade under the stone foundation during the days and spent the nights perched in pine trees growing where the school’s playground last heard the laughter of children so long ago. Rusting appliances framed the front door.

In the ramshackle school house, a man and woman lived on very little, and yet, the county had placed little Janie and Silas in the home to live with their aunt and uncle. We wondered if the children were anything more to them than a source of income. Mostly, the support money quenched their Uncle Johnny’s thirst. The brother and sister lived impoverished lives, deprived of more than groceries or new shoes.

It came time at the little church for the annual children’s Christmas Drama. The nice thing, my wife said, would be to ask Janie and Silas to come and take part, even though they were like wild creatures, furtive and distrustful. Everybody knew what would happen that night.

Like the unholy Herdman kids, these two waifs would grab fistfuls of cookies and cake. They’d stuff as much as they could into their mouths and pockets, and off they’d run. They would not behave and never participate. Still, the caring thing would be to ask them, especially now when the other children in the community were so excited and full of anticipation.

It seemed a miracle. When asked, they came—and they joined in! Janie was even chosen to play the starring role.  She sat silently beside the manger, holding the Baby Jesus doll in her arms, lost in her own reveries. Silas played a rumpled shepherd, dressed in my long white bathrobe, a towel wrapped around his head and a broomstick for a staff. He marched triumphantly up the center aisle toward the manger, his sister and the baby. In his eyes that night for the first time, we saw joy and hope.

On that cold December night, two small outcasts were welcomed in. They played parts in a story far greater than the sad script of their own bleak lives—a story of wonder and expectation and the promise of unconditional love.

And in my family’s favorite memories of the season, that was the best Christmas Pageant Ever.

NOTE: A couple of you who would know that this is a piece from Slow Road Home that I tend to bring out most Christmases now for almost a decade since the publication of the book. Where have the years gone? 

 

Holman Elementary 1954 – 1962: 7th and 8th Grades

I’m not sure the world is a better place for having shared these moss-covered and faded reflections, but there you go. You’re done. No more. Until the next wave of remembery.

Seventh Grade: Ms Griffith

•    My memory is that we made this woman ill. I remember subs during this year, and we did not treat them well in ways i have mercifully mostly forgotten—except for putting a large assortment of very wet spitballs from the mouths of both boys and girls into the upturned hat of one male sub. Who never came back. Scurvy elephants were working to become scurvy delinquents. Few of us succeeded. Except maybe Teddy Drake.

•    Not long into the year came the Halloween Carnival which included a hay ride. Repugnant as it was to met at the time, boys were expected to pair up with girls in the back of a hay-filled flatbed truck and ride around the un-wildness of Woodlawn Highlands. To my horror, some of my buddies fell into this trap, and nobody was holding a gun to their heads. I felt totally betrayed and bewildered.

•    I remember very little of what happened during school hours this year. Mostly I would place it along the time axis of a long life by the friends I hung out with—Bobby Pogue (since age 3) and Tim Akers; Bryce Callaway and the Bill Murray gang were not so much close friends as amiable combatants when we had snow and snowballs,  and as collaborators in the pyrotechnics of zinc and sulfur explosions in the power line clearing behind Crestwood Circle. Joe Allen Cook, Ronnie Pilgreen, David Gillespie, Carol Elam, Rick Sprague. More would become visible out of the haze with more time squinting into the past. David Hogan. Whatever happened to him? And Kathy McElhannon?

•    I played YMCA basketball and scored a total of two points (for my own team!) that year. My father was the coach. And then he played on many other teams—away games—after that.

•    How can you spend so many hundred hours and remember so little about it? Maybe our world in that age was enlarging so that school was less and less and friends and music and the greater world became more and more of our lives.

•    I think it is telling that I can sing the lyrics to many of the 100 top hits of that year (1960-1), so culture of the age was replacing culture of the home and the school. It was the age of the Twist, Elvis, Sam Cook, the Everly Brothers and the year Kennedy won the presidency. A catholic. Many southerner Baptists threatened to move to New Zealand. It was the end of the world.

Eighth Grade: Mrs. Gillespie

•    Fat Pat. She was pregnant early on and took maternity leave early in 1962. I remember her as patient, pleasant and secretly amused by much of what she must officially condemn of our collective and individual misbehaviors. We were not mean-spirited, even when we rigged up her chair so that when she sat down and made contact to complete the circuit powered by a flashlight battery, it would trigger a flash bulb hidden in the books on her desk in front of her. I think she laughed.

•    Halloween Hayride 8th grade: I had drunk the KoolAid. Parties include such new sports as Spin the Bottle. And upon those new skill sets, Rhea Smith and the reluctant new imbiber of early-teens KoolAid became special friends.

•    It was the year we had some poor woman for “industrial education.” She was working beyond her pay grade. She called us up to her desk probably for blanket condemnation of our sorriness, which we earned. The lot of us without a word commenced to pushing her desk and the chair she occupied towards the chalkboard like the trash compacter scene from Star Wars. For this attrocious hilarity we were to come back after class that day. We swooped down on the classroom from the outside and jumped in through the open 20 foot tall windows at ground level. She didn’t say by which portal we were to return for detention. We were a creative lot.

•    By eighth grade a young student should begin to show a propensity for one realm of human endeavor over others or at least to have dominant curiosities. I suppose my leanings towards science came best into view when I was at Camp Winnataska and/or fishing. My mother carried me often to East Lake with a little cardboard tub of red worms. There was a mystery in fishing the boundaries between the world of air and the hidden world of water, from which you might pull an old shoe, a largemouth bass or a genie in a bottle. Fishing was mystery and imagination, a lure of opportunity cast time and again into the unknown.

•    For some health class related reason, we took our height towards the end of that year. I was five foot eight. Six months later at the beginning of my freshman year, I and been stretched but without additional bulk, to six foot. A man’s form with a Lost Boy’s brain.

•    And life goes on.

Grade One

Grades Two and Three

Grade Four and Five

Grade Six

Holman Elementary 1954 – 1962: Sixth Grade

This was perhaps my most traumatic year of grade school. And my mother corrects me: the Scent of Death was Tabu.  On the plus side, it would be the beginning of the decade of coming of age music. But that is another subject for another time.

Sixth Grade: Mrs. Badeau

•    I wrote the teacher’s name just now and hair on my arms stood up. Not a good sign. I should have had counseling during and for years after sixth grade.

•    The Red Book was the bane of my existence. I could not keep up with my homework (it was somewhere in the mess that was my desk) so I fell farther and farther behind, as recorded in the Red Book. I soon came to dread school, but found there was a solution.

•    I spent a total of a month at home that year, after learning you can run an inexplicable low-grade fever by either holding the thermometer under warm water or, if you’re being watched, under the covers you can rub it briskly against the sheets and create enough friction to become sufficiently ill that you can stay home and watch Arthur Godfrey.

•    I was so far indentured to the Red Book but the end of the year that I was required to address my incompletes over the summer AFTER I had been promoted out of Guantanamo. Such a thing most surely is contrary to the Geneva Convention—unless you are Ruth Hill Carr Badeau.

•    My mother had this same teacher when she was Ruth Hill Carr. I think my mother would have been perfectly normal otherwise. Just kidding, mom.

•    Was it Estee Lauder? Shalimar? Whatever it was, the woman bathed in it. By association, the slightest vapor of it gave me prickly heat for years thereafter.

BigBassDrum300•    This was a year of morning rituals of regimentation to keep the troops in line. One thing for sure, I remember the 121st psalm. “I will look up unto the hills, from whence cometh my strength” and “A little man bought him a big base drum, boom! boom! boom!” We recited together like so many little wind-up toys. Or else! And I learned and still remember the Greek alphabet and the difference between Ionic, Corinthian and Doric columns. The woman was a Roman era groupie. Three years later, I took Latin in high school. I blame (or credit) Mrs. Badeau for that. In combination with Ms Long’s phonics and vocabulary, I was science-jargon primed for college.

•    This was the year some of my buddies discovered the climbing wall. The brick front of the school was such that about every eighteen inches, one row of bricks extended an inch or so beyond the others. If you were careful, you could scale the outer wall a few feet and jump back down. But where’s the fun in that? We decided we’d shoot for the moon: an open second story window, during recess when everybody else was on the playground on the other side. Maybe four of us were about to reach the window when Mr. Hall leaned over, looked down, and just waited. This was one of the first “Oh Crap” moments of my young life. I have had a few since where you’re damned if you climb higher and damned if you let go.

•    This would have been 1960 and the coming of the first new decade of which I took note. I think that was because the even number let me easily predict that at the beginning of the new millennium I would be 52 years old. I could not imagine the point of living so long. I still have moments of uncertainty in that regard. I still am a Lost Boy in NeverNever Land.

Percy Faith – Theme From A Summer Place – YouTube
See where this 1960s hit carries  you.

 

Holman Elementary 1954 – 1962: 4th and 5th Grades

This would have been 1958-9. Other installments in the series (hang with me, we’re more than half way now) are linked at the end of this chapter.

Four Grade: Ms Long

•    I have copious memories of Ms. Long. I’m sure we all do. She was much feared. I loved her. From her I learned phonics, vocabulary, and sarcasm.

•    She told the story of an irate mother who demanded an appointment with her to discuss what had been said about the woman’s son. She claimed that he had been called a “scurvy elephant.” To which, Ms Long, with her glasses down on her nose and expression of great disdain mixed with pity, told the woman…”I did not call your son a scurvy elephant. I called him a disturbing element.” I think I was one of those too, but she never threw an eraser at me at the pencil sharpener or poured water on my head asleep at my desk. Tough love. She was ahead of her time.

•    I stopped by Ms Long’s house in 1973 when I was working at the medical center and before we moved to Virginia the first time. I knew she was home; the same ancient dark green car she drove in 1958 was in the driveway. I knocked on the door. She answered it. I stepped forward and said “Ms Long, I bet you don’t remember me.” Drolly, she looked down her nose through reading glasses and said “That’s right.”

When I told her who I was, with a flash of recognition, she practically wept. We talked inside for an hour while she watered her beloved ferns. Which she pronounced FuhWeens. (Her classroom was always lined with them and I know there were days she much preferred them to human children.)

She said she’d often wondered what happened to me and my brother who both endured her with much less terror and more cautious admiration than most of our classmates. She never got much love. She deserved much love. She might have been the most influential teacher of twelve years of my deep-southern education.  No, she was that.

Fifth Grade: Mrs. Davis

•    Mrs Davis was a coach maybe, I think, because I remember her wearing a whistle around her neck.

•    Girls as a group formerly not visible began to become visible in and out of class this year. Especially Ruth Schaeffer.

•    I got an upgrade that year from the Rocket crystal radio I had used to listen secretely after bedtime to Birmingham Barons baseball games with the wire clamped to my metal bed-rails. My Birthday-gift radio was a sweet piece of technology—turquoise, like the rock in Mr. Halls collection. It was so tiny—no bigger than a World Book encyclopedia. I was not supposed to take it to school. I took it to school and left it in my locker. I went back to get it, by which time it was already in somebody else’s collection. Maybe Mr. Hall’s.

•    This class was in the new wing (is that right?) with crank-out windows. I spent much time taking advantage of them and not so much the chalk board. Chalk. It is the medium of the age. And they have not yet discovered that all those years chalk dust  was lethal to small lungs–unless you got picked to clean erasers. Chalk dust lung–occupational pneumonopathy of grammar school.

•    Teddy Drake was a scurvy elephant that year. We did our best to keep up with him, but thankfully failed to do so.

•    A YMCA football team was blessed with my participation that year. It was not the brains (they’d heard about my earlier touchdown for the wrong team) so I guess it was the brawn. I exuded a certain Barney Fife wirey-ness. I played wide end, #81. I caught a touchdown pass once, intended for someone else, and I was already positioned properly cross the correct goal line. Hoyt Stovall was the quarterback, a real stud. But Ruth Schaeffer liked me better.

•    It was the year (maybe one of the years) I had consistent P’s for Poor in conduct. I was learning that if I couldn’t beat Hoyt Stovall on the turf, I would be funnier; more entertaining. I was told if I got an E for Excellent in conduct I would get a football. If David Gillespie could do it, I could, mom told me more than once. I got my E. I got my football. And I thereafter resumed my career in my comfort zone, farther down the alphabet.

•    By this year the front of the school property had been terraced. The rough edges of that lot was, before that, one of those few wilderness places in a tame suburban neighborhood. And across the road and down below ran Village Creek, an open sewer as it turns out, and probably a Superfund site now. We always wondered why the water smelled of rotten eggs.

You became a respected member of the Lost Boys if you rode your bike down all three terraces. I did, but feel certain Hoyt Stovall was chicken.

Part One: Grades One

Part Two: Grades Two and Three

Holman Elementary 1954 – 1962: 2nd and 3rd Grade

Second Grade: Ms Barnes  1955-6

•    The first thing I always remember about Ms Barnes was that she came to my house, and I was not in trouble. It was my seventh birthday party. You don’t forget stuff like that.

•    Was this the year we were introduced to “magic markers”? I remember the squeak; and the smell. I think I got high, which was risky. Get the tip too close and you’re marked like Rudolph for a week.

•    This was the year I got a flattop haircut and the year before I grew into my front teeth. I remember the smell of butch wax and egg salad sandwiches and soured milk whose odor never quite left my Lone Ranger lunchbox after the little thermos broke. Their glass liners were not designed with seven-year-olds in mind.

•    I walked to school, cutting across a vacant lot where one day, I found what I am convinced was a large piece of turquoise. I showed it to Ms. Barnes and she sent me with it to show Mr. Hall. He kept it. I’ve wondered about that since.
•    The playground was unimproved until maybe the next year. I liked it better the way it started out for us, with hedgerows of privets along the back and along the side by Leslie Smith’s house. I spent my first wilderness wonderments in those rough natural places.

Third Grade: Ms Terry

•    I have no recollections of Ms. Terry whatsoever.

•    I think I remember this classroom being upstairs in the middle of the building. Our coat closets were out in the hall behind large folding doors. You could look into the room from the vents in the closets and I remember “spying” unseen on my classmates once. I wanted to be a spy from then on. But mostly Superman.

•    I got a pocket knife that year. Briefly. I think it was a dull-pointed scout knife. I was not supposed to take it to school. I took it to school. I thought I would win points with my classmates if I terrorized Dora Kitchens because she was not in the IN group. I did the dead. I served the time.

•    We played football as rag-tag teams for the first time this year. I caught a long pass and ran for a touchdown. For the other team. Years later I learned the rules, but never became a great fan of the game. Give me dodgeball any day–with those big under-inflated ribbed red-rubber balls. Now that’s a sport!

•    We had our own desks—for the first time—where we could organize our own collection of books and things. One PTA meeting I was acknowledged to my mother as the keeper of the most disorganized desk in the class. This inspired me to become the slob that my wife accuses me of being even today.

•    By now we were reading quite well. We had “library period” with some regularity—once a week? I read all of the thin green volumes that were biographies of famous people and spent much time at the Woodlawn library in the science fiction section, fascinated with stories about the future. Now I’ve been there. They all got it wrong. I want my jet pack!

Part One ~ Holman School Days 1954 – 1962