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Three score and ten or more

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

I warned you that I was liable to post some stuff I had written and failed to peddle. This is one that I actually wrote, peddled and got paid for, then the magazine folded and never printed it.
Maybe you'll figure out why.
ONE OF THOSE DAYS

I have written about events at Roosevelt School in Alameda, Idaho before, but I feel a need to describe the school a little before I get into this story. The school sat on Maple Street in Alameda and was shaped like a squared off “U”. The west side of the U contained six class rooms: two each for the first, second and third grades and had a boy’s and a girl’s bathroom at the base of the U, with an exit between them onto the asphalt playground behind the school. This wing was generally called “the little side”. The east wing was a virtual duplicate of the west except that the desks in the rooms were larger, and this wing was, logically called the “big side” as it housed fourth, fifth and sixth grades. The space between the wings (or the base of the U) contained the school offices (complete with secretaries), the Principal’s office, a small room, or office, for the school nurse and another room with a piano in it that was sometimes used for musical events, as a lunch room, and as a space wherein to wait for the ultimate discipline of the Principal, who, for most of my tenure at the school was Mr. Spriggs. There was a stair near each front double door that faced Maple street, another narrower stair by each rear entrance leading to the playground. In the center of the base, between the wings, near the principal’s office, there was a wide stair, used primarily as a place to pose classes for year end photos. The space between thewings was nicely landscaped with green grass and bushes and woe be unto the unwary child that might stray onto the grass. Children were expected to play on the asphalt playground behind the school (which contained none of the accoutrements that are generally seen on modern day playgrounds). No slides, swings, merry-go-rounds or other things to detract from the reflected heat of the asphalt. There was, on the playground behind the big side, a primitive version of a softball diamond with painted-on bases, a painted pitchers line, and a couple of nets, on portable poles that could be placed behind home plate as a backstop. (I suspect that this was supplied because foul balls and pitches missed by the catcher would almost certainly have gone through the Principal’s office window.) Each classroom on the “big side” had a bag that contained a few worn softballs, a couple of bats and a catcher’s glove. I seem to also remember a first baseman’s glove, but I am not sure. Those children who had any ability to play softball often came to school with a softball mitt attached to one of the belt loops of his pants (Soft ball was rarely played by females), or, in the case of bib overalls, attached to the hammer loop on the leg. I think that there may have been a basketball backboard with no net somewhere on the playground but I am not sure. Basketball season was in the winter, and the playground was covered by a sheet of ice most of the winter, a situation which militated against basketball. Softball was played both in the fall and in the spring by the students on the big side, and recess occasionally also included occasional games of touch football. (Really fun on asphalt). The most common games among students on the little side were jump rope, marbles and jacks (also pretty common on the big side), Red Rover Red Rover and other competitive rhyming games like Ring Around the Rosie and Duck, Duck Goose.

My lack of hand-eye coordination was well known, so I was rarely picked for one of the pick-up team softball games, though I did all right occasionally in “work up”. I was an easy mark for girls who wanted to play Jacks as well as boys who wanted to play marbles for “keeps”. I was large for my age and was a fearsome competitor in Red Rover Red Rover and games of that type.
I also got in a lot of fights, not because of being aggressive but because I attempted the peace making role as other kids got in fights. One would think that a person with a moderate intellect would have caught on sooner than I did that when two guys are fighting, if one walks up and says “Hey break it up you guys”, that one will often end up fighting both of the guys who were originally fighting. Unfortunately it took me a ridiculous amount of time to catch on.
On the day in question, I made several tactical mistakes, little realizing that they were going to affect my whole day: First, I decided to bring my ball mitt to school. My dad had bought me a pretty good, yellow leather softball mitt, in an attempt to foster my non-existent athletic skills.
He had made a valiant attempt to play catch with me and help me learn to use the mitt. (He never did know how discouraged I became when, being in a place I shouldn’t have been, I overheard him tell my mother “I don’t know what to do, the boy throws like a girl. Even worse, he catches like a girl: he throws his hands out straight and closes his eyes.”) Anyway, I decided to wear the mitt to school (which was an informal way of telling everyone I wanted to play). Second mistake was to leave the mitt fastened to my belt when I went out to recess. My third mistake was to wander over by the ball field as they were choosing teams. (Actually on my way to the little side to try to get up a game of Red Rover)

I really wasn’t worried since David Morse was one of the captains, and he, as my personally chosen nemesis in all things athletic, would never choose me for his team. What I hadn’t noticed was that Del Busby, who not only was a friend but was in my primary class (church school) was the other captain. Del was a total innocent who had never seen me with a ball in my hand, and seeing me with a mitt at my waist, assumed some degree of desire and ability, so he chose me to be on his team. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that he had made one of the great mistakes of all time, so I moved over into his group. I was a fair batter, and if he were wise enough to put me in right field where almost no one ever hit a ball, there was a chance to escape with my pride intact and without hurting Del’s reputation.

It never happened. Still misinterpreting the mitt at my waist as a usable tool, he sent me out to play short stop. Almost any girl in the class,(given a butterfly net) had a better chance than I to catch a hot grounder at short stop. I wandered fatalistically out to my position, put my mitt on my left hand and begun some kind of baseball chatter. (I was a member of the knot hole club for the Pocatello Cardinals, the local minor league team, so I at least knew the basics of baseball chatter.)

The game didn’t begin as a disaster. We took the field first, and Del, apparently a better pitcher than judge of talent, struck out the first batter. The second hit a long fly to right field, where I would have been had my choices been considered. The right fielder caught it handily although he all but rolled the ball back into play, a sign that I was not the only klutz on the field. The third batter bounced out to first base and relief washed over me as I considered the possibility that the bell would ring and recess be over before I got back onto the field again.

Batting in school softball was usually systematic. First was usually the catcher, then the pitcher, then first, second and third base then short stop, then the fielders. By that logic, I had little chance of getting to bat unless others on my team got on base. They didn’t, so I found myself back at shortstop as they came up again. The first batter to the plate was good old David Morse, and I shuddered a bit. He was good, and might hit the ball. On the other hand, he was good enough to hit to the outfield so I had little to worry about but. . . Bang. He swung at the first pitch and rifled a grounder right at me. I had just time enough to vow that I would not close my eyes when, involuntarily my hands stretched out blindly in front of me, my eyes closed and the ball bounced up from the asphalt and smashed me square in the nose. Lights flashed and thunder rolled and I heard the sound of running footsteps jump over me heading to third base.

My next sensation was being lifted off the ground. I opened my eyes and the face before me was that of Miss Griffin, a first grade teacher from the little side who had lifted me up off the ground.
Miss Griffin was the one teacher who was adored by all her students and former students. She was beautiful. Every one of her male students had a crush on her, and I was no exception. If I had to be hit in the face by a hot grounder, I couldn’t think of a better result than being picked up by Miss Griffin. She carried me over to the side where she sat me down and another of my teachers appeared. Mrs. Larsen who was my fourth grade teacher knelt beside me and asked if I was all right. I nodded yes, silently hoping that she was not going to pick me up. No one, except maybe her husband, had a crush on Mrs. Larsen, thin and wiry with hair that was a totally unnatural shade of black. Suddenly, I was shocked to hear Miss Griffin’s voice saying “Shit!”, a totally unknown sound coming from that beautiful mouth. I recognized the source of her anger as I looked at her lovely white satin blouse with long sleeves and a great streak of red down the front that could only have come from my nose, which was still bleeding copiously all over my clothes. I sensed immediately and regretfully that I was not likely to be picked up again. I stood, pressed my finger under my nose (I bled frequently and knew the treatment), and asked “What should I do now?”

Miss Griffin turned to Mrs. Larsen and said “I’ll take him into the school nurse, no sense in both of us getting all bloody”. Mrs. Larsen nodded and for one brief ecstatic moment I thought I was going to be crushed against that soft breast again, but she just took my hand and led me into the school through the back exit into the big side.. We turned to the middle of the school and into the nurses office. The nurse looked at me, and without speaking she took a bag of ice out of her refrigerator and handed it to me. She had seen me with a bloody nose a number of times before.

I took the ice bag and a paper towel, held the ice bag under my nose, and began to mop up blood from my clothes. I was surprised to see the nurse give an ice bag to Miss Griffin and thought with some fear that I had somehow injured her, but she just took the ice cubes and began to try to rub the blood out of her blouse. After a few minutes she began to mutter under her breath, and I tried not to listen, in case she said the bad word again. The nurse suggested that she go into the back office where she could change the blouse for some nurse thing she had back there and wash out her blouse in the sink. Miss Griffin nodded and went into the back office. I didn’t really LOOK, but I did glance back in there where the door wasn’t tight closed and saw Miss Griffin with her shirt off, and just a brassiere on, washing her blouse in the sink. I looked away quick, so that no one would notice that I saw, and reflected that this day was turning out to be a really good day, after a lousy start. I figured that almost every boy in the school would stick his face out in front of a hard grounder if they thought they could get a glimpse of Miss Griffin in her brassiere., let alone be carried by her across the school grounds. I, kind of, glanced back that way again, but the door was closed tight, and I figured that either Miss Griffin or the nurse had seen me look and had closed the door. I didn’t care, life couldn’t get much better. I was wrong.

Mr. Spriggs came to the door and asked how I was doing. Mary Catherine Jones, who was, I guess, one of my best friends, and whose dad was both the Mayor and the City Clerk of Alameda, had come to his office and asked if I was all right. I replied that I was Okay, and Mr. Spriggs turned to tell Mary Catherine that I was doing fine. She replied “Fine” and just marched into the room. Mary Catherine said that she had called my mom, but that she wasn’t home, so she had called her dad, who said I could come down to the city offices and wait till mom got home. It had never occurred to me that I would do anything but go back to my class after recess was over, but it appeared that I might have a whole day off from school, and that was really promising. I glanced over at Mr. Spriggs to see what he might be thinking, but he just nodded.

I turned out that Mary Catherine had gone to my class and asked Mrs. Larsen which books I would need, and had collected those books. Carrying my books, she took my hand and led me out of the school and down Maple street. I tried to take my books back but she wouldn’t hear of it, so I just walked along, holding her hand and thinking that this day was getting better and better. We walked down Maple to Washington Ave., then turned to reach my house. The car was gone so it was obvious that mom wasn’t at home so Mary Catherine put my books on the porch, and still holding hands (there was no romance here, but we were close friends) we walked another block down the street to the city office and fire station where her dad worked. When we got there, her dad commented on my bloody shirt and went into his office, returning with a couple of bottles of orange pop (soda, to non-westerners). He gave us each a bottle of pop then we wandered out to the bank of the irrigation canal that (somewhat strangely) ran through town at the end of the 300 block of Washington Ave. (later on in the fall, the water would be cut off and it would just be a dry ditch, but at this time it was still full of water.). For an hour or so we sat by the canal and did all the same things we would have done if it were still summer. We took off our shoes and dangled our feet in the water, we skipped some stones across the water and I caught a frog, inserted a dandelion stem into his rectum, blew him up like a balloon and tossed him in the water to float away as he gradually deflated. In my heart I felt that no school day could be quite as pleasant as this one.

It would have stayed that way for the rest of the day except for one little discussion. For some absolutely unknown reason, Mary Catherine and I began to discuss religion. I think it may have come up because I had told her, a few days ago, that I had been baptized during the summer. Mormons are generally baptized when they are eight years old (the age of accountability, we call it). Catholics, on the other hand are baptized as soon as possible after birth. Mary Catherine had become concerned about what would have happened to me if I had died before I was baptized. I know what to tell her now, but I am afraid I was a little vague about it then, and she got ticked off about the fact that I might have died and gone to hell pre-baptism.

The discussion evolved to the question of “what church is true or truer or truest, or something like that”. I replied with the comment that had been cited to me in Sunday School and Primary almost since I learned enough language to understand, the our church was the ONLY true church.
This comment went over like the proverbial lead balloon, and , for the first time since I had met her, Mary Catherine was looking at me in a less than friendly way. I didn’t like that look at all, because I liked her a lot. I stumbled and bumbled around for a few minutes, then seized upon a test that would make everything better. I looked down at the canal bank past my blood soaked shirt and noticed a stalk of what we called Indian Tobacco. I am sure that it has another name but it is a distinctive Western plant that has a cluster of buds or seeds at the top that are green all summer and that turn a deep red brown in the fall (like tobacco?). I proposed that we both pray hard for five minutes (she had a watch, I didn’t). I would pray that the tobacco change back to its unripened green state, and she would pray that it stay the way it was. At the end of five minutes we would check the plant and see if it had changed or stayed the same. If it changed, my church was true, and if it didn’t, her’s was.

Now if I had been Tom Sawyer, I would have been slick enough to reverse that challenge and have her praying to change the plant and me trying to keep it the same, but I was not that slick, and after five minutes of mighty prayer we checked the plant and it was still in its reddish glory. Mary Catherine broke out in a glowing smile, congratulated me on my growing knowledge of the truth of Catholicism, and I slunk on home, my unofficial hookey day spoiled, knowing that I hadn’t heard the last of this prayer (and I hadn’t, it came up in discussion after we were both in high school).

To top it off, when I got home, my mother was there. She instantly wanted to know how I got my bloody nose, and why I wasn’t in class.. I explained the situation and she made me change my shirt, then took me back and made me go in and get assignments from all my teachers then we took them home and spent most of the rest of the day studying. It goes to show that no matter how bad a day can seem it can get better, and no matter how good it can become, it can get worse.

Copyright © Richard B. Johnson, 1998

2 Comments:

At 1:01 PM, Blogger exMI said...

Very good.

 
At 9:30 AM, Blogger popteacher said...

Nice to know you're still kicking
around!! Veli Grossen

 

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