School Field Trips

School Field Trips (part of my Blowing on Embers series)

When we moved up here on the diagonal, our children attended a school far out in the county. Field trip time rolled around, and I was surprised to overhear some of the students saying they were planning to “lay out” that day. A field trip to town not only held no interest for them; they were a little overwhelmed by it. For some, visits to downtown were rare and intimidating, it seemed.

Not for me. Back in my school days in Florence, South Carolina, everyone I knew shared my enthusiasm for our annual field trip. It took place in the spring and was the highlight of the school year. I think we may have seen it as a sort of rite of passage. We’d made it through (almost) another year in the classroom.

My first field trips occurred when I was a student at Briggs Elementary. Some school board shuffling meant I spent the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades at Tans Bay, so much further out in the county that I’d never heard of it. Field trips were a staple at both schools. When the big day came, the air was electric with anticipation.

Below are pictures taken of my third, fourth, and fifth grade field trips.

Notice anything?

3rd Grade field trip

Can you spot  me–or Teddy?

4th Grade field trip

5th grade field trip

That’s right! Every single field trip was exactly the same. Year in and year out.

It went like this:

  1. Put home-packed lunch (mine was always my mom’s terrific egg salad sandwich and a small bag of potato chips) in the large cooler filled with dry ice. Do not touch the ice!
  2. Tour Coble Dairy; select a half-pint carton of white or chocolate milk; return to bus.
  3. Tour Merita Bakery; pick up a cinnamon roll two-pack and a Pepsi; pose for official field trip photo on steps of bakery; return to bus.
  4. Hop off bus at Timrod Park; retrieve lunch from cooler, watching in fascination as the dry ice forms fog when it transforms from solid to gaseous state (remember not to touch!); eat lunch and play on playground; return to bus.
  5. Disembark charter bus back at school and board yellow school buses for home.
DSCF0320

The schoolhouse where 19th century poet Henry Timrod taught is a showpiece of Timrod Park.

For some reason I cannot fathom, we were always accompanied by a police officer—he was the same year after year, too. Our county was small and peaceful. We students were certainly not rabble rousers. Nonetheless, we had police protection. Not that we minded. We girls thought he was the cat’s pajamas. Tall, uniformed, dark wavy hair. He scared us a little, but we couldn’t help but flirt in our grade-school way. (You can see him sitting in the lower left of the middle picture with holster hanging from his hip, and standing, upper right, in third picture.)

Florence must not have been much of a happening place in the middle of the last century. But it sure seems like the school system could have come up with a little field trip variety.

 

 

Big Changes

Big Changes (part of my Blowing on Embers series)

My year in the yellow house was pretty eventful, but so was the next place we lived: Thrift Road in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was where my youngest brother was born, where I started school and learned to read—a lifetime passion.

The night before my first grade school picture was to be taken, I took a pair of scissors to my hair.

It was where our family listened to the 1952 presidential election results. “Who are we for, Mommy?” It was where I got my first pet, a blonde cocker spaniel-spitz mix we named Boots and where she died from injuries received when she was hit by a car a few months later.

It was where I went from measles to chickenpox in one fell swoop, missing an entire three weeks of school. (Remember, this was before today’s age of vaccines.) I was so sick! And it was where my across-the-road neighbor, Mary Ann, told me she was adopted and had me convinced I was, too, a conviction so powerful that it had me searching for proof among my parents’ papers for five years.

Charlotte was where I was terrorized by the hundreds—hundreds—of snakes that slithered out of a weedy field and across our driveway after a heavy summer rain with me in their midst. I’d never seen a snake, but I’d picked up from somewhere (certainly not from my wildlife-loving parents and not from TV—we didn’t have one of those) that snakes were to be feared more than death itself. I leapt onto the bottom rail of the chain link fence that enclosed our back yard, my tiny hands clutching the links for dear life, and screamed bloody murder till my parents came out to save me. My snakes turned out to be nothing more than slugs!

Thrift Road must have extended further then than it does now because I was able to walk to Thomasboro School, just a few blocks away. According to current maps, it’s much too far a distance for a first grader to walk. Today’s roads in that neighborhood (like Freedom Road and I-85) are also far too busy for children to walk them safely.

We had a school-wide assembly on my very first day where the principal, Mr. Curlee, announced that he had locked up all bicycles that had been improperly parked (whatever that meant). I thought that was so mean! Mr. Curlee terrified me.

I’d swear that my teacher, Mrs. Howie, was older than these mountains I live among today. For reasons I won’t go into, I thought she was mean, too. But she must have been an effective teacher. I started school at a distinct disadvantage: all my classmates had a year of kindergarten under their belts, but I’d just moved from South Carolina where there was no public kindergarten. As a result, everyone else in my first grade class was well ahead of me both academically and socially in the beginning. It must not have taken long for me to catch up, though, because my report card (yes, of course I still have it) was stellar in every way, even when I missed a full 30% of a grading period because of those childhood diseases.

My report card cover. How very Dick and Jane.

We lived in Charlotte a mere sixteen or seventeen months before returning to Florence. I’d been in second grade for just days when we made the move. When I walked into Briggs Elementary School, a few days into the South Carolina school year, as well, whose do you think was the first face I saw? Teddy’s! We were reunited! It was more than I’d ever dared hope for. I had long since resigned myself to the certainty that our paths would never again cross.

In my elation at this happy surprise, I told my newfound girlfriends that Teddy and I already knew each other, that he was, in fact, my long lost boyfriend. When they didn’t seem to believe me, I did what may have been—to this day—the boldest and most uncharacteristic thing of my entire life. I told them I’d prove it by kissing Teddy one hundred times! I had to chase him down at recess, but I did it.

We never spoke again.

My third grade class. For some reason, I don’t have a second grade picture, but with the exception of the teacher, the cast is the same. (That’s me way back there in the last seat of the row next to the wall.)  Miss Milliken was our second grade teacher. Our exotic, red-headed third grade teacher was Miss Whitlock. I adored them both.

My Year in the Yellow House—Revisited

My Year in the Yellow House—Revisited (part of my Blowing on Embers series)

As I wrote “My Year in the Yellow House,” I wondered whether the story would have broad appeal since it didn’t have any overarching theme or message. Just random memories. Nothing much to see there.

The yellow house many decades later—no longer yellow, but with the addition of front and side porches

I was suddenly taken aback at that notion. My essay was full of big deals. Unstated, but implied, was the fact that my youngest brother was conceived the year we lived in the yellow house, rounding out our family. How would my own life story be changed if that hadn’t happened? Most assuredly, he and his children think it was a pretty big deal.

Questions bubbled up.

For the family who lost their home and all their household belongings right down to their shoes and underwear, the blaze that destroyed their house was monumental. I wonder how it changed their lives. Did they have family nearby to put them up temporarily? Did they have a savings account in the bank to help get them back on their feet? Was their life savings, however large or small, stashed in a mattress that went up in flames? What happened to them, I wonder.

Was Glory’s tumor malignant? That’s what I always thought. If it was, did it go into spontaneous remission? Did her family’s faith cure her? How did she turn out? Or did the tumor kill her? When? How was her family—and their belief system—affected?

What about Carol’s family? Is there a more devastating blow than losing your young child? Did her family survive intact? Many don’t. And what did the world lose with no Carol to grow up in it? What about the family that never was? Would she have changed the world? Questions the answers to which no one will never know.

It was an eventful year on our small block. My own travails were pretty petty compared to what was happening all around me.

And yet, they weren’t. I heard something on the radio recently about how important it is to listen, really listen, to all the insignificant things your young child wants to tell you, no matter how busy you are with more important grown-up issues. The point was that if you don’t listen now, they’re unlikely to tell you the really important stuff later. But it was the next phrase that really struck me: “to them [the children] it’s all important.” Of course it is. It’s all they know.

To five-year-old me, it was all important. It would have been to any five-year-old.

My most potent memory from that year is the one where I was pushed into a tiny but formidable dark space, locked in, and forced to allow my most valuable possession to be desecrated in order to gain my freedom, having no confidence that the bargain would be honored, even then. My doll was my baby; it was an intolerable choice. And all because of someone’s inexplicable need to be cruel.

I don’t know all the ways the doll experience colored my life. Was that the moment the meek, compliant girl I grew into was forged? Was it what made me forever seek to avoid confrontation at almost any cost? Was Glory’s taunting what birthed my empathy for others? Or was it just a terrible moment with no particular future consequences other than a bad memory?

I don’t have the answers to any of these questions.

What about you? What questions still linger from your early years? Were there childhood moments—little or not so little— that changed your life?

My Year in the Yellow House: Childhood Vignettes

My Year in the Yellow House: Childhood Vignettes (part of my Blowing on Embers series)

I was five the year we lived in the yellow house. My brother was two. Our little two-bedroom home in Florence, South Carolina, near Cole’s Crossroads, was part of a modest and sparse subdivision, if you could even call it that. There were no sidewalks, and grass grew erratically in the sandy yards. Roads in the development were nothing more than not-too-packed sand.

alan yellow house

My brother’s favorite place to play was on the sandy road in our neighborhood.

Our house sat on a corner of the neighborhood’s main road. Follow it for a block or so and you’d be on old Hwy 301/52. Directly across the highway was Edwin Turner’s Chicken Basket, a popular family restaurant and the favorite spot for our very occasional meals away from home. As the name suggests, the restaurant’s main fare was fried chicken, along with french fries and hush puppies,* served in brightly colored, paper-lined plastic baskets—the kind you now see in a few casual dining establishments, but a true novelty then. We usually chose a booth in the knotty pine dining room, and Edwin Turner himself would stop by to ensure we were enjoying our meal.

Out front was the sign proclaiming the name of the place. As I recall, atop the sign sat a large rotating replica of one of those famed plastic baskets. My brother could never keep the words for Edwin Turner’s Chicken Basket straight. He always called it Chicken Edwin’s Turning Basket. When you think about it, his literal rendering made perfectly good sense—as children’s name mash-ups often do.CHICKEN BASKET

From the Tichnor Brothers Collection, Boston Public Library, http://ark.digitalcommonwealth.org/ark:/50959/mg74r003g

We loved the Chicken Basket—for its tasty food, its novelty, the attention of its owner, its prominent role in our lives. In addition to special dinners out, Edwin Turner’s was a true landmark in the community. For us, it was the easiest way to direct friends and out-of-town family to our house.

But the restaurant is only one of many memories I have of that year. They are a mixture of good and bad. It was while we lived in the yellow house that my first real childhood friendships developed. It was also where I experienced my first significant encounters with sickness, trauma, and grief.

My childhood preceded the era of many vaccines in use today, and I was in bed with a severe case of mumps for what seemed like forever. The lumps on either side of my neck felt humongous, and the pain of swallowing was so intense that I demanded something to spit into so I wouldn’t have to swallow. Of course, it didn’t work, but I gave it my best, spitting several times a minute all day every day into the blue and white speckled enamel pan Mother placed next to my bed. To this day, I have an aversion to enamel cookware.

Glory (not her real name), with her white-blonde hair, lived across the street from us. She had a tumor on her lower back, just above her buttocks. Her parents’ religious beliefs prevented them from seeking medical attention for Glory, but the tumor must have been extraordinarily painful because Glory, who only wore dresses, didn’t wear underpants—the pressure would have hurt too much.

Neither Glory’s illness nor her family’s deeply held religious beliefs kept her from being a bully, though. One day when we were playing in my bedroom, Glory locked me in the toy cabinet and refused to let me out until I gave her permission to tear my doll’s hair off her head. I was terrified in the pitch black cabinet, and I was devastated at the thought of what was happening to my precious doll. Mother was in the kitchen just a room away, but the cabinet doors and the wall between us must have muffled my piteous crying.

My very best friend, Teddy, lived on the third corner of our intersection. We played together much more often than I played with was tortured by Glory. One of Teddy’s and my favorite places to play was in the abandoned excavated lot on the fourth corner of our intersection. We loved it down there where our imaginations could run wild.

Then Teddy had a birthday—his sixth. When I got the invitation to his party, I was inconsolable. Six was when children started school; it stood to reason that Teddy would start first grade without me. It took both my parents and his ages to convince me that I, too, would be six before school started. Teddy and I would still enter school together, they assured me. (It turned out to be a moot point, anyway, since our family moved to another state before the school year began.)

Celebrating Teddy’s sixth birthday—no longer afraid he’d start school without me

Another playmate—another Carol—lived on the far corner of our street. She rounded out our little circle of playmates. Carol and I shared more than a name. We were exactly the same age, born the same day. We were also both dark-eyed, dark-haired, olive-skinned little girls. We could have passed for twins. I can still see the heavy bangs that framed her round face.

One day Carol was hit by a car. She was hospitalized for a few days before dying from her injuries. We didn’t have a telephone and Mother didn’t drive, so she had no way of delivering the terrible news to Daddy. When he came home from work that day, he found Mother crying in the kitchen. She blurted through her tears, “Carol died today.” It was Daddy’s shattered look that made her realize he thought she meant me.

You might expect Carol’s death to be my big trauma from those days. But the truth is, I remembered nothing about it until my mother recently reminded me of it. I was either too young to understand what was going on or I was, in fact, so traumatized that my memory blocked the whole experience.

From time to time a few other random memories of our year across from “Chicken Edwin’s Turning Basket” flutter through my mind. Late one night, we were awakened by sirens and flashing lights. The whole neighborhood stood and watched as a nearby house burned to the ground, its occupants standing alongside us in their pajamas, watching helplessly as their house went up in flames.

The image of them, pajamas now the only clothing they owned, was indelibly seared into my brain. Ever since that night I’ve thought losing my home and its treasured contents to fire would be one of life’s worst tragedies. All these years later, when coming home from an out-of-town trip, I reach the bend our house is just around only to realize I’ve been holding my breath for the last little bit, waiting to be sure our home is still there, still intact.

My brother and I shared a bedroom in the yellow house. Our parents were awfully concerned about his incessant thumb-sucking. Afraid his habit would cause future dental problems, they tried every remedy they could think of. I remember his thumbs being heavily wrapped in adhesive tape. That didn’t work. Neither did the last desperate measure our parents employed: swabbing his thumbs with the latest advance in thumb-sucking cures. My little brother was unswayed. He stubbornly sucked away, bawling all the while because his mouth was on fire with hot cayenne pepper, the “cure’s” main ingredient. More than sixty years later, Mother feels guilty about trying that remedy.

We moved back to Florence a year or two later with another brother in tow. In one of those interesting twists of fate, he later became fast friends with Edwin Turner’s son, also an Edwin. Over the years, they shared quite a few adventures of their own. Misadventures, too. But that’s a whole other story—and his to tell. Or not.

*For the hush puppy recipe from Edwin Turner’s Chicken Basket, check outhttp://www.familycookbookproject.com/recipe/3394125/edwin-turners-chicken-basket-hush-puppies.html.