Monday, December 20, 2010

It's Elementary

We were students at Ridge Road Elementary School through fourth grade. None of the three years that followed first grade with Mrs. Todd are so clear in my memory as that year was. Second grade is probably the least clear. I remember only that our teacher was Mrs. Miller, young and pretty, I think, who went off on maternity leave somewhere around mid-year. She was replaced by Mrs. Louise Smith, one of my mom's best friends from college, and a person I had known for as long as I could remember, which, of course, wasn't terribly long. I even called her by her nickname, "Butchie," when we weren't in school. My two sole specific memories of that year are when some kid, I'm not sure who, began behaving really badly, and our principal, Mr. VanHoover, came down to our class. When the kid continued to twist and shout, Mr. VanHoover whacked him one on the butt. How the times change. For most of my teaching career, striking a kid in any way was called "making a career decision." My other second grade memory involves "show and tell" or maybe we called it "news" that year. I had gone to the movies with my dad on a Sunday afternoon and seen a really cool science fiction movie and a western set in South America. The South American western included piranha and an anaconda, and starred Frank Lovejoy, I think. I loved both the movies, but when I told about it in "show and tell" the next day, I decided to embroider the experience, by saying we also saw 20 cartoons, and our whole family came. Then I worried for a week about getting caught in my untruth. I still wonder what possessed me to enlarge upon such a great time.

Third grade is basically memoryless. Our teacher was Mrs. Cataldo. I remember her as kind of brusque but basically nice. That's all I remember. Was that the year we learned long division?

Fourth grade is more of the same. Basically zip. Our teacher was Mrs. Martin, wife of Ralph Martin, who was high school principal for a long time, I think. I struggle for a single memory--drawing a pilgrim or making a mailbox for valentines--but I cannot locate anything specific.

In 5th grade, we moved to the new Bay Road Elementary School. When I arrived, I was surprised to find that my room was way down in the area where the first and second graders, the little kids, had their classrooms. What had I done? I hadn't flunked or anything. But when I went and found my class down in the little kid wing, I also found a bunch of kids I knew, Charlie Moore, Jim Ross, Bill Merritt, Gary Masline, and more. There were some other kids there, too. Big kids! Sixth graders! Bob Moline, who I knew from Little League, and Todd Cooper, who lived near us, and Steve Custer, who would get rheumatic fever that year and be out of school for months. Soon, as we sat in our new desks, our hands folded in expectation, we discovered that we were part of what I guess was an educational experience. We were in a class with fifteen 5th graders and ten 6th graders, and our beaming teacher was named Mrs. Steepee. She was amazing, wonderful, remains one of my favorite teachers ever. As that fantastic year rolled along, I came to understand that we 15 fifth graders were often given our heads, so to speak, to work on projects, while Mrs. Steepee brought the sixth graders along on their work at a little slower rate. Often we were together on stuff. I remember many great things about that year, but the two I most cherish and which I tried to adapt to my own teaching style were the sense of security we always felt with Mrs. Steepee and the magic of her voice as she read to us from wonderful books! She introduced us to Freddy, the Pig. What a milestone.

Sixth Grade. Our teacher that year was a formidable instructor. Our teacher could enthrall students with a subject, delight them, excite them until they were jumping in their seats, but then, sometimes, crush that youthful wonder with a ridiculously angry overreaction to a word or a waving hand. We learned lots that year! I remember science and math, the first little intro to algebra, our social studies units, especially the one about Maine, and Bill Merritt's model viking ship with the sail made out of a piece of pajamas. My greatest memory of sixth grade was the day our teacher slipped and fell into the waste basket.

When I next blog, it'll be about 7th grade at the old Webster Junior-Senior High School, the school with the giant study hall, where the desks were bolted to the floor so they could never step out of line.

Addendum: Anyone who read this earlier might notice that I have edited my paragraph on the 6th grade. It's two days before Christmas after all, and high time to forgive the goings on of 50+ years ago.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Memory of Michael

When I attended my 45th high school reunion in August, I talked to a bunch of people about my "Dubois Hill" blog. I assured them that I would be blogging more, and soon, about our growing up. It didn't happen, though. I was overwhelmed with family responsibilities and the responsibility of writing and directing a play as a fundraiser in mid-October for our town library. September and October passed and I hadn't blogged at all. Then November began, and I started thinking about the play I have to write for next summer. "Thinking" is the operative word; I was suffering from writer's block. Now December has begun, and I am still without an idea for SUMMERPLAY. I hope that blogging again might get my stalled creativity started.

Back in August, I wrote about first grade and Mrs. Todd. A talk with Gary Masline at our reunion, reminded me of a student whom I had failed to mention. His name was Michael, and he was very interesting and a little frightening to us first graders. He had a wild look in his eye, little to say, and whenever he walked down the hall or ran across the playground, he slapped his leg as he rode his imaginary horse. I remember being assigned to help Michael with his pumpkin person project. This project involved cutting out a big orange circle and a lot of smaller green ones and joining them together with those two pronged bendable attaching things and creating a pumpkin man. I don't remember how we did on making a gourd guy, but I remember being pleased that I had been assigned to aid his efforts. At the reunion, Gary and I talked about Michael and wondered if he was autistic, victim of a condition that I don't believe was labeled in 1953. I think of all the help a boy like Michael would receive if he were in school now and realize that he probably got no assistance back then, save for Mrs. Todd's determined efforts and occasional help from kids like me with his pumpkin-people kinds of projects. I can only think how tough it must have been for his parents, and I have real admiration for them. I can also think how very tough it must have been for Michael. What became of him, I cannot say, as he was gone from our school by second grade.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Humphrey, Big Kids, and Baseball

Pineview Drive was the fabulous sight of so many great things to do if you were 6 or 7 or 8 in the summers in the 50's. There were the marathon games of hide and seek, which we called "humphrey." The kid, who introduced us to this version of the game, Jack, I think, explained that everyone hid while one kid was "it" and counted to 100. Then, when he was out seeking the hiders, you tried to run back to the spot designated home and shout "Humphrey!" which made you safe. We played this way for years and years never realizing we were supposed to be shouting, "Home Free!" To me a game of hide and and seek and run will always be called "Humphrey."

There was also tag, and fort building, expeditions to the woods for apple wars, and riding our bikes around the block 20 or 25 times, going to day camp at the little school, where I learned to do boondoggle, and playing with our toy cowboys and soldiers in the sandy yards. But the absolutely favorite thing to do was to play baseball. There were only six "big kids" living in our two street neighborhood. We used that term to describe those of us who were the oldest boys in our families and of about the same age. On Pineview lived Paul Kreger, Jack Butler, Fred Schwind, Jeff Hainge, and I. From Apple Orchard came Gary Kibler. That group of six was pretty much together until we went off to Junior High School. If there was a ball game happening or mischief somewhere afoot, we were the usual suspects. As a result both of our baseball teams only had three players--a pitcher, an infielder and an outfielder--baseball at its simplest but most wonderful.

Hundreds of baseball games were contested between the Pineview Pioneers and the Appleview Eagles. Gary was the only resident of Apple Orchard Lane, the next street over, but we felt it necessary to include the word Apple in his team name to make him feel part of things. We played for hours most days in the summer in the Butler's backyard. Their house was on a corner lot, and had a big backyard as a result. From homeplate to the fence that separated the Butler's backyard from the Short's backyard was probably 120 feet. But when you were 7 or 8, that was a real distance. For what I bet was a couple of years, we tried to hit a homerun from homeplate over that fence, and we gave such a dreamed of but apparently impossible hit a name. It was everyone's deepest wish to hit a "shortsy!" For the longest time no one ever did, until one amazing Sunday when Paul hit the first "shortsy" in history. Later that day, I hit one. When the long Sunday afternoon game was over, Paul and I had swatted two shortsies apiece. What had seemed impossible was a reality, and I will never forget that day.

The glove pictured at the top of this blog is almost exactly what my first baseball glove looked like. I got it for my sixth birthday. My dad took me up to "Huehn's," which was a variety store in Webster. On a bottom shelf was a pile of dusty ball gloves. From that pile I chose a three-fingered model. It was flat as a pancake, had a very little web, and almost no pocket. I loved it and played with it until I was 10 or 11. I still have it stored away in some box. I think it cost 4 bucks. I also got my favorite bat ever at Huehn's. It was a long but light "Danny O'Connell" autograph model. But the bat came later and is, perhaps, a story for another time.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Pineview Drive and Those Who Moved Away

Our house was the last house to sell on Pineview Drive in Webster in the summer of 1953. The houses on Pineview were built for the World War II vets and their families. My birth year, 1947, was the second official year of the post-war Baby Boom, so there were lots of kids my age on our new street.

The houses on Pineview were either Cape Cods or ranches with two styles of each. Both the more expensive Cape and the more expensive ranch had covered front porches. That was what made them special. Our house was one of the less expensive Capes. It was white with a red roof and sat on a lot composed entirely of sand. Not a tree nor blade of grass surrounded our houses. Playing sandlot baseball on Pineview Drive was a literal event. The houses had gravel driveways, and the contractor had been pretty stingy with the gravel. But I think my mom and dad bought our house for $11,400, which is now the cost of a half decent used car, and I don't remember anyone complaining about our spartan lawns and driveways.

I would make great friends on Pineview, but when I think back to the beginning of my life, I first remember the kids who quickly moved away. In the first year I lived there, I befriended a kid who was one year older than I was. He had a sad celebrity because his father had been killed the last year of the war, and now Doug, which was his name, lived in a ranch house with his mother and grandfather. When I was 6, he seemed a lot older than 7 , but what really impressed me about him was the fact that he was allowed to carry a little razor blade knife. It hung on his belt from a chain, and, to become his friend, you had to let him slice your palm a little and he would slice his. Then you would shake hands and become his blood brother. Doug moved away after about a year.

A few houses up the street, in an inexpensive Cape Cod, lived giant twin ten year-olds named Marshall and Maurice. I distinctly remember their size and the fact that they always wore white t-shirts and jeans. Maybe, we all always wore white t's and blue jeans, but I only remember it about the M and M twins and how big the t-shirts were. Soon, they moved away and another family moved in. They had a cocker spaniel and a little boy, maybe 4, whose name I have forgotten. He was a cute little guy, and then, they moved away. A year or so later, my friends and I would hear the terrifying news that that little boy had died of the chicken pox. We were told the chicken pox got inside him. It scared the snot out of us. An intimation of our own mortality.

Directly next door to us, in an upscale Cape lived a family with three boys, Raymond, who was 8, Kenny, who was 6, my age, and Ricky, who was about 2, my brother's age. For the first year we lived on Pineview Drive, Kenny was my best friend. One day we decided to dig a hole in Kenny's backyard to search for treasure. We dug and dug in the sand, which dug pretty easily. Suddenly we hit a hard surface. We began to clean it off, and saw that it was a man-made box or something. Treasure! Kenny ran inside to get his mom. She came out and told us we had unearthed the septic tank. I never got enough time to play with Kenny, because he was severely hearing disabled, wore hearing aids the size of fire hydrants, and went to special school in the city. We had great times when we did get to play, though, but then they moved away.

Further up Pineview Drive, lived a family with two boys, probably 5 and 4 years old. Their names were Toto and Gigi. Those were their real names. They moved away, too.

So what does this recollection of friends departed tell me. That 1953 was a very fluid time, I suppose. Jobs calling people to different places. Upwardly mobile house purchasing and moving on. But more than anything, it just makes me wonder what happened to those kids who were briefly part of my life so long ago.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

First Grade

I started first grade 2 days late in September of 1953. We moved from Penfield to Webster on Labor Day Weekend, and it was the Thursday after the Tuesday when everyone else started, that my mom got me registered and delivered to Ridge Road Elementary School. I was the new kid in two ways, both because I arrived late and because I hadn't gone to kindergarten in Webster the year before. It's interesting that I remember arriving that first day of first grade and standing in the doorway waiting to be admitted, when class was already in session. There are few really clear images of first grade still on file in my brain. I suppose I remember those first minutes because I was probably scared and because it was the first time I had come face to face with Mrs. Todd.

Mrs. Todd was a formidable presence. I doubt she was very tall, but she seemed to tower over all of us. I doubt she was that old, but she seemed ancient. She was so stern! And she dressed in old-fashioned dresses with handkerchiefs pinned to the bosom. She took my hand that first day, and, before leading me to my desk, introduced me to the class. "This children," she said, "is Gregory." I shrunk inward. I hated my first name in full form, still do if truth be told. "Greg" was all right, but I really wanted to be Bill or Bob or some other cowboy name. And there I was labeled "Gregory" on my first day of first grade. The label stuck, too. All the other kids called me Gregory. Of course, everyone else had to suffer the same formality. We called Bill Merritt "William;" Rick Walker "Richard;" Charlie Moore "Charles," and Jim Ross "James." You had to have a good non-variational name like Gary Masline to be called by a reasonable kid kind of title. All year long, we went around talking like stuffy grownups. "William gimme the paste!" "Want to play duck duck goose, Richard." Because I really don't remember what we all looked like back then, I imagine first grade populated with a bunch of miniature 17 year-olds. And we all answer to these foofoo names.

I got ahead of myself. Back to Mrs. Todd. Every morning we had to go through "inspection." She'd walk each row and make us show both sides of our hands, then smile to reveal our teeth. Finally, she would stare down into our hair. I never knew what that was about then. But the scariest thing was the way she walked. Mrs. Todd had one leg that was considerably shorter than the other. Though she wore special old lady shoes, she would still dip to one side as she she came down the row to our desks. Dip-step! Dip-step! she approached. I can see her still.

She was a wonderful instructor, I think, not being a very good judge of teachers at that point in my life. I know we all started off learning and pretty much stuck with it. And though I remember her as scary, it is affectionate fear.

I tried in vain to find a photo of Ridge Road School at Google Images. Not surprising, in that the building in Webster hasn't been a school for a long time. The last I remember, it was the property of the army reserve. That's why this post is illustrated with a photo of an "Old School."

Where the Ridge Road Forms a Border and Life is Worth Living

Over the last year and a half, I particularly enjoyed writing about my time in Webster, where I grew up in the 50's and 60's. Having tired of general blogging but not of writing, I decided to start a new series of posts about that time in my life. I hope that it won't just appeal to people who grew up with me, but to others who grew up during those years in other places, and to others who may find life in the 50's and 60's to be interesting.

I have chosen "Dubois Hill" as my title because it was on that wonderful hill that I sledded with my friends way back when. Way back in 2009 I blogged about this special place. That posting is partially reprinted here as an introduction to this new blog of mine.

Where we lived, there was a hill that was great for sled riding not far from the woods we called the Big Woods. The slope was called "Do Boy Hill," and it featured two fine places to slide, a gentle slope for the sissies, and a steep trail through some trees, which we called "Old Suicide." Old Suicide brought about the untimely demise of many toboggans.
Do Boy Hill was both a fun and noisy place, what with all the kids laughing and shouting on their sleds, and their dogs barking happily as they ran down the hills beside them. The only problem about Do Boy Hill was its name. Kids wondered just what was a Do Boy and why was there a hill named after him.
And this wonderment birthed a legend, a legend that existed even before I moved to Webster, a legend that my friends who had lived there longer, and other kids from nearby streets, were eager to share with the new kids that moved onto Pineview Drive or Apple Orchard Lane or Adams Road. The Do Boys, legend had it, were a gang! A gang of big boys, teenagers probably, that prowled the streets of our neighborhood and the paths of the Pines and the Big Woods. Why were they called Do Boys? Why because they "DID" things, of course. Did things to little kids. Awful things! So awful that no one knew what kind of awful things they actually were.
It's not like we little kids spent a lot of time worrying about the Do Boys, but their frightening name did occasionally come up. I remember one time when a friend of mine said, "Did you hear that the Do Boys burned down a garage last night?" "No," we all said in hushed tones, fearful that a nearby Do Boy might hear us. And it never crossed our 7 or 8 year old minds that no garage had burned down in the area in recent memory. Heck, most of our houses didn't even have garages. Another time, I asked one of my friends just what he knew about the Do Boys. He told me that he thought they wore numbers on their backs. I almost passed out one day when I happened to turn around and see bicycling toward me, a big kid wearing a football jersey.
But time goes by, and the legends of little kidhood are put aside. No one mentioned the Do Boys as we grew older. I guess we had all decided without conferring that the Boys had either grown up and joined the Army or had never existed at all. One day, when I was about 17, I was driving down Klem Road. "Do Boy Hill" was quite nearby. I happened to glance at a mailbox in front of an old farm house. On the mailbox, in fading paint, was the word "Dubois." Suddenly, a legend from my youth was demystified, or perhaps, demythified. Do Boy Hill wasn't named for a gang of psychotic, number-wearing, garage burning teenagers. It was named for the owners of the property, the Dubois family, who had apparently chosen to Anglify the pronunciation of their last name to Du-boyse, rather than sticking with the French Du-bwa.
I'm glad I was 17 when I found out about it. If when I was 7, someone had said to me, "Hey, idiot, there's no gang called the Do Boys. The hill belongs to the Dubois family," I'm sure I would have been really disappointed. Legends and myths are important to little kids, and one that's right in your own neighborhood, no matter how scary, is pretty tough to give up.