Walking to School

Is it just me, or are very few kids walking to school these days compared to when we Boomers grew up?

The school situation in Bentonville, Arkansas has been whacked at least since my kids were in school. We’ve had a population explosion here for thirty years and perennially have too few seats in the classrooms. Not only that, my kids weren’t allowed to attend the elementary school close to my house. Instead, they had to ride a bus to one several miles away.

Shades of forced busing to achieve integration!

The truth be told, we probably would not have let them walk to school anyway, at least until they were older. Too many sleazeballs out there looking to prey on kids these days.

But in my hometown of Miami, Oklahoma so many years ago, the only kids who rode schoolbuses were the ones who lived in rural areas.

My own walk to school was about a mile. I would traverse alleys to get there, making friends with the neighborhood dogs in the process. They would eagerly greet me as I walked by at precisely the same time every morning.

In fact, if I close my eyes, I can envision nearly every step of the daily trek. Sometimes my slightly-better-than-normal memory scares me.

I also rode my bike to school a lot, a Sting Ray knockoff. The bike rack in front of Nichols School would be full of colorful banana-seaters, as well as a few odd traditional bikes ridden by the less fortunate.

Rain was a year-round threat in the midsouth. So sometimes the bike would have to go in the trunk for a ride home with mom. Of course, the trunk on a Fury III was big enough for three or four bikes.

Mom was a schoolteacher herself, and had to be at the other grade school in town early. So when the weather was bad in the mornings (or when I just wanted a break from walking), I would ride with the kids who lived across the street. I remember they had a big Buick LeSabre whose name I had a hard time pronouncing. It went against all of my training in phonics.

In all, I walked to kindergarten and school for four years before our move to rural southwest Missouri. But I have many, many memories of mini-adventures on the way while walking to and from Nichols Elementary so many years ago.

The Year We Went to School in the Dark

The earlier Daylight Savings Time we experienced this year may have brought back memories of the year you went to school in the dark. A Mideast war had a domino effect that caused that particular memory for us one year. Here’s how it went down:

On October 6, 1973, Egypt and Syria crossed cease-fire lines and attacked Israeli-held land in the Golan Heights which it had obtained during the 1967 Six-Day War. This most recent conflict became known as the Yom Kippur War. When you have that many wars, you have to keep them straight.

Anyhow, Israel fought back and reclaimed its lands, and it was all over by October 26. Only it wasn’t over. For the United States and any other pro-Israel nations, it was just beginning.

Those lovable lugs who form the coalition known as OPEC decided we all needed a spanking. So on October 17, while the little Yom Kippur thing was still going on, they announced that any nation that supported Israel would thereby be cut off from receiving any more of their oil.

In so doing, they managed to accomplish several things. They ended up doubling the price of oil. They caused a recession in the US. And they caused inflation to surge dramatically.

In many areas, long lines formed at the gas pumps. Many stations ran out of gas altogether. In southern California, they had odd-even days. You could only buy gas on the day that matched your license plate number. Vanity plate owners were odd or even based on how many letters were used.

In my area of northwest Arkansas, we were small enough in population that I don’t remember lines of more than two or three cars. I don’t recall any stations running out of gas, either. But the prices nearly tripled. It took a while for gas to go higher than a dollar a gallon, but eighty cents was still a shock when you were used to paying around thirty.

Laws were passed to deal with the crisis. They were both stupid. One dropped the nationwide speed limit to 55 miles per hour. It basically turned a predominantly law-abiding nation into one filled with speeders who grew used to violating that law, and would likely grow used to violating others. It took 21 years before it was finally done away with.

The other silly law was year-round Daylight Savings Time.

In the northern United States, daylight wouldn’t arrive until well after 8:00 AM. That meant kids were going to school (walking, in many cases) in pitch black darkness. Did nobody in Congress or the Senate see a problem here?

We spent parts of two winters going to school in the dark. Then in 1975, the law was repealed. We were back to DST beginning in April and ending in October.

Interestingly, FDR instituted year-round DST in 1942 for the duration of the war. Complaints were fewer then, perhaps because the adjustment was called War Time, and patriotic fervor overrode any concerns for kids in the dark.

But there was no war in 1974, only a harried population already dealing with gas lines and closed stations. The last thing we needed was our kids going to school in danger of getting run over or abducted in the inky darkness.

The Embargo taught us that we shouldn’t depend on imported oil, because its flow could be affected by things like idealogical beliefs. For a while, we learned and got smarter. The huge gas-guzzling cars Detroit had been selling us for years began to get smaller and stingier with gas. Alternative power sources were explored. Fuel consumption went down.

Alas, today, it’s back up. We think we have to have four-wheel-drive to get around. Cars are getting bigger, although their overall mileage continues to improve. And while the hybrid vehicle is becoming more commonplace, research into alternative energy sources has slipped badly. We’re importing more oil than ever.

But at least our grandkids aren’t going to school in the dark.

The Paddle Hanging by the Chalkboard

At the risk of inciting the wrath of the PC police, today’s memory is about the paddle that hung by the chalkboard, and the discipline it inspired.

I was a class clown. No, let me rephrase that. I was THE class clown. Ergo, I was quite familiar with that wooden implement that usually had holes drilled in it “to lower wind resistance” one teacher told me. It would also be sinisterly marked with bold colors to get your attention while it hung from the wall right where you could see it.

Occasionally, the teacher would use it. More often, getting a student’s attention and merely pointing to it would cause a potential disturbance-creator to settle down quickly.

The paddle accompanied my school days from first grade through my senior year in high school. And yes, I was familiar with the procedure involved in getting yourself a needed dose of corporal punishment.

My first grade teacher, Mrs. Cottam, would simply bend you over your desk and give you a single swat. She knew just how much oomph to put into it to gently cause a six-year-old to see the error of his ways. I only got one paddling from her that I recall. That was all I needed.

As I grew older, my propensity to entertain others made me a semi-regular recipient of “learning sessions.” By junior high, the procedure was modified a bit. You would be marched out to the hall and told to wait. The teacher would go get another to act as a witness, then would make you grab your ankles.

Different teachers had different pain-producing-levels. Students would spread the word among themselves as to whose paddlings were walks in the park and whose classes you DIDN’T DARE act up in.

My biggest shock was from Mr. Smith, my algebra teacher. He was a little guy who was very methodical in his educating, drawing lots of formulas on the board and teaching straight out of the book. He was also seemingly oblivious to the acting up that went on non-stop in his class. Of course, that made fertile soil for yours truly to plant my wild oats of clowning.

Well, one day, out of the blue, I guess he decided he’d had enough. So he marched a fellow goof and myself to the office. We both chuckled along the way. The whole school knew that the principal didn’t have much of a backswing.

To our surprise, diminutive Mr. Smith wielded the paddle. This was going to be even easier! I volunteered to go first. I bent over the desk. Mr. Smith proceeded to smack my rear so hard that my face hit wood!

I was stunned. I don’t think I even felt the next one. When I looked at my partner in crime, he was already crying.

When word got around of the sheer force behind Mr. Smith’s paddle, his class suddenly became quite well-behaved.

Today, of course, paddling is evil, monstrous, horrible, and, most important of all, Politically Incorrect. One website I found has a table showing the number of students who have been “battered,” not paddled, over the years. I don’t know why they’re worried about it. It’s been banned in every school district that I know of.

But we Boomer kids remember when our teachers had paddles, and weren’t afraid to use them.

The Last Day of School!

This is a memory that every kid shares, regardless of generation. The last day of school was a rush for all involved.

Kids loved it because it meant three months of freedom. Teachers loved it for the same reason. But kids had the additional bonus of going up a grade the next year. Of course the lucky teachers gained another year of tenure, where applicable. But the rest got a year closer to retirement. And even the staff that had to keep working, like maintenance, finally got to tackle jobs that required shutting down parts of the buildings.

So the last day of school was without a doubt a good deal for all involved individuals.

The school year would start with a resigned acceptance of circumstances. Summer was fun, often involving a real vacation and perhaps some weekend campouts and fishing trips, But the days had grown shorter, the air had turned cooler, and it was time to get back to the dreary business of studying, learning, and (my biggest challenge) behaving yourself.

But eventually we would settle into the routine. Thanksgiving would provide a big fat four-day break, Christmas and New Year’s an even longer two-week hiatus, and, assuming we didn’t have too many snow days, a spring break of a week.

Once you got those precious April days off behind you, it was a short jog to the freedom of summer. You walked to school with an extra spring in your step. The weather was warm, leaves were popping out on the trees, and everyone was in a better mood.

Soon, you were in the very merry month of May. You were taking end-of-year tests and getting more free time in class for your own personal use (as long as you were quiet, another big challenge for your webmaster). You were free to draw airplanes, wars, space ships, or any other objects of kids’ artistic endeavors.

By the time I made it to junior high in the early 70’s, I was going to Bentonville, Arkansas Middle School (NOT junior high, according to our principal!). There, I obtained a taste of a spring tradition in that small town (at least it was back then). That tradition was progressive squirt gun lenience.

Get caught with a squirt gun in September, it was three licks in the principal’s office. But the same violation circa May the 5th would warrant a mere 100-word essay. And when school let out at the end of the month, your water-dispensing weapon was COMPLETELY LEGAL!

The only offense that would draw discipline was squirting the teacher. But some of the more light-hearted educators didn’t even mind that. So after a day of joyful dowsings from fellow students while delivering as much return fire as possible, you finally loaded your tired but exuberant body onto the school bus and went home.

It’s a shame that, as adults, we no longer have an annual explosion of joy like the last day of school. We could really use a day of unrestrained, innocent revelry every year.

The Big Chief Tablet

The ritual was followed every August. You would reluctantly drag your still-in-a-summer-vacation-mood bones to the store with your mom and pick out the stuff you needed at the hated Back to School sale. The items would include soft lead pencils with enough heft to beat someone to death, a wooden ruler with a strip of steel embedded in one edge, a compass for drawing perfect circles, albeit with holes pierced through the paper at their centers, a plastic protractor, and a huge monstrosity made of processed wood pulp known as a Big Chief tablet.

Schools provided lists of required items to parents spelling out the necessary supplies, citing the Big Chief tablets by name. After all, second-graders were simply not ready for finer-lined spiral notebooks, what with using those tree-branch-sized soft-leads for writing implements (and building up our right forearms in the process).

John-Boy Walton used a Big Chief to hone the writing skills that would get him off of the farm. I was unable to track down the exact date the venerable tablet debuted, but needless to say it has served untold millions of schoolkids in the 20th century.

Walking into a 1968 classroom at White Rock elementary school at tiny Jane, Missouri, you would have spied rows of small chairs with built-in tabletops, each with a red Big Chief tablet nearby ready to record the thoughts of its juvenile owner. Had you arrived at my assigned seat, you’d have noticed one with an unintelligible name scrawled across its top. While many of its pages would be used for legitimate classwork, others would be devoted to love notes to Melanie Spurlock.

The tablet stayed in tune with the rapidly changing Baby Boomer times, in the 70’s spawning a Son of Big Chief tablet featuring a Native American looking like he was ready to take over Alcatraz.

So many generations of kids used Big Chiefs, you would have thought they would last forever. Not so. The Western Tablet Company of Saint Joseph, Missouri devised the original Big Chiefs, and later merged with Mead Products (and thereby vanished). The last Big Chief rolled out of the factory in January, 2001. (update: they are being produced again, but for prices north of 15 dollars each, presumably for collectors)

Oh well, I suppose Big Chief tablets have probably been labeled as politically incorrect, along with about 90% of the things we Boomers grew up with. But it was good enough to help John-Boy Walton become a professional writer.

Square Milk Cartons in School

Ah, elementary school. You got recess in the morning, lunch, recess in the afternoon, AND milk break! Life was sweet, especially now that many of us are slaving away at 50-60 hour per week jobs and are on call 24/7.

But in those relaxed times, we could count on an afternoon delivery of white or chocolate (your choice!). And, coolest of all, it came in cubic cartons.

Now, to be honest, I got a lot of milk in the more traditional cartons that had a single edge at the top, shaped a bit like a house. But in my earliest school years, the bovine-produced delight was encased in these perfect cubes, complete with a corner that was to be turned up for dispensing of the contents.

This photo is from a vintage carton featured for sale on eBay. I would have liked to seen a corner-on shot, but it gets the idea across.

Here’s to more relaxed times. Maybe we need afternoon milk breaks at our cubicled sweatshops.

Racing in the Pinewood Derby

The year was 1967. I was in the second grade. I was in class wearing my spiffy Cub Scout uniform, along with the other classmates who were members of the local pack. We had a den meeting after school that day, and we wore our uniforms to school.

But this afternoon’s meeting was a special one. We were to receive our Pinewood Derby kits!

The denmaster had been talking about the Pinewood Derby for weeks, building up our anticipation to nearly the breaking point in the process. I mean, what could be cooler than cars screaming down a track, with the winning entry getting a real trophy?

The concept of cars screaming down tracks is a natural thriller for young boys. That’s why Hot Wheels was such an instant hit. But Hot Wheels wasn’t around yet in 1967. So we Cub Scouts were able to get our speed rush via the Pinewood Derby.

That afternoon, we were finally given our kits, along with instructions to have our fathers help us transform them into screaming machines driven by gravity alone.

Interestingly, nearly every boy in the room had fathers AND mothers living in the same home back then. Today’s instructions no doubt mention visitation circumstances.

Anyhow, we ran home as eagerly as we could with our prizes. And as soon as dad had some time to spare, we went to work.

Dads got as big a kick out of making the cars as did the kids, as I recall. The big blocks of wood would require carving, cutting, sanding, painting, waxing, and strategic weighting. These activities were far over the head of a seven-year-old, so help was essential.

The key for dads, though, was knowing where to draw the line between “helping” and handling the whole process themselves.

My dad did great. He handled the carving parts, but let me do the sanding and spray painting (my car was a jet black, a color we just happened to have sitting on the garage shelf). I nailed the wheels on, and dad screwed fishing sinkers to the underbelly. I would say that he did exactly as the originator of the program, Don Murphy, was hoping for in 1953 when it all started.

The derby itself took place in the lunchroom of Nichols School in Miami, Oklahoma. The tables and chairs had been folded away that Friday night, and the magical track was set up in the middle of the room. It was the most gorgeous thing I’d ever seen. The room was full of excited kids and parents as the competition began.

My beautiful jet black racer was unfortunately not very fast. I remember winning one heat on the two-lane track, and getting blown away in the second round. Trophies were awarded to the top three finishers in each division (Wolf, Bear, Webelos). Everyone else got a ribbon. Needless to say, I was a ribbon winner.

But I still have fond memories of that night. And it did indeed bring a father and son closer together. I discussed that Pinewood car with dad many years later, and he still remembered it.

In researching the Pinewood Derby, I found several sites that offer guarantees of winning cars if you buy their plans, or you get your money back. But I like to think that there are still a few fathers out there who have the time to spend with their sons to build a racer completely from scratch, using only the designs in their collective heads, and possibly even beating out cars that are “guaranteed” to win.

Praying In School

Wow. You want to see a hornet’s nest of opinions? Try typing “praying in school” into Google.

However, this site is subtitled A Baby Boomer’s Pleasant Reminiscing Spot. Ergo, no controversy here. No, instead, I offer a peaceable remembrance of when prayer was a part of school, and nobody really thought a thing about it.

My first day of public school was sometime in early September 1966. I have vivid recollections of that day, and indeed, it will be a future column. It was a very scary place, because I had never experienced anything like it before.

After all, Mrs. Adams’ kindergarten was held in her home. Nothing was too scary about that. But real public school involved walking into a modern building (probably erected circa 1960) and dealing with bright fluorescent lights, loud bells, and strict law and order.

What kid wouldn’t want to pray under such circumstances?

Evidently, Mrs. Cottam felt the same way. So mornings would involve two different rituals: saying a prayer, and reciting the pledge of allegiance.

In later years, organized prayer depended upon the whim of the teacher. Ironically, I remember reading about prayer being banned in schools in My Weekly Reader at the very same time that my fourth grade teacher would ask a different student each day to lead the class in a pre-lunch prayer.

It was a bit confusing, to be sure.

But I don’t recall being emotionally scarred by the “heinous” practice. Indeed, organized prayer in school was simply something we grew up with, for better or worse, along with our parents smoking, corporal punishment, and Vietnam war protests.

Nowadays, our kids have to pray on the sly, as even a “moment of reflection” has been decreed by the Powers That Be to be over the line. And I’m not sure that’s a bad thing, because my religion was taught to me by my parents. And my children’s religion was taught by myself and their mother. I’m not comfortable with a state-supported school delving into matters beyond scientific explanation.

But we Boomers can remember when religion was a part of the daily school routine, and as far as I know, it didn’t kill anyone.

My Weekly Reader

1960 My Weekly Reader

Unfortunately, I can’t remember which day it was. But one day each week, we received a delightful little four-page read in school: My Weekly Reader.

Thanks to this fascinating little periodical, I knew the names of every astronaut who went into space between 1969 and 1972. In fourth grade, our teacher made us memorize them, and I kept doing so for years afterwards. My Weekly Reader would prominently trumpet their triumphs, even with the later moon missions that the public lost interest in.

Then again, there was Peanut and Jocko. The monkey and elephant would crack wise and further inspire class clowns like myself.

The idea behind MWR was that you would study them on your own, then discuss them in class. It was more like fun than work.

n researching this piece, I learned that the familiar flyer was first produced way back in 1928 by Eleanor M. Johnson, who died in 1987. So it’s far more than a Boomer tradition. In fact, it’s still going strong today! Even Peanut and Jocko are continuing to inspire the next generations of class clowns.

Here’s to Eleanor, who found a way to inject a little fun into an otherwise humdrum school day, and made you learn something in the process.

It Snowed! School’s Canceled!

Kids enjoying a snow day in 1967

There may well be many of you Boomers (and others) out there who can’t relate to today’s memory. The Floridians and Los Angelenos will shake their heads quizzically, as will Minnesotans, but for different reasons. Bear with me.

Miami, Oklahoma (and my later homes in SW Missouri and NW Arkansas) had a temperate climate which allowed for hot summers and cold winters. The winters were quite mild compared to International Falls, Minnesota, but we got our share of frozen precipitation.

So a little bit of high pleasure I recall waking up to was discovering that the yard was white, so were the streets, and SCHOOL WAS CANCELED!

Mid-south towns like Miami were ill-equipped to deal with slippery streets. Since many winters would only manage a couple of two-inch snowfalls, city officials simply couldn’t justify purchasing expensive street-clearing equipment. So a modest three-inch-depth might virtually paralyze traffic for the early part of a day.

School buses made their runs first thing in the morning, so it didn’t take much snow for the school superintendent to call KGLC, the local radio station, as well as the Pittsburg, Kansas and Joplin, Missouri TV stations and give the word that would bring sheer ecstasy to kids all over town (and perhaps a slightly different emotion to their mothers).

While waking up to snow and getting the good news was intoxicating enough, it was even better if a heavy snow caused a cancellation the night before! I remember we got an unusual 12″ snowfall about 1966 or so. I got to stay up late that night and sleep in on a Wednesday, in the middle of January! Life couldn’t possibly get any better. That snow gave us the rest of the week off.

Okay, my memory is not so perfect that I recall the very days I missed. But it makes for a nice story flow, don’t you think? 😉

The neighborhood kids would converge some time in the morning, and the constructions and snowball fights would commence.

It’s amazing what a group of kids with time and packable snow can accomplish. I remember my buddies and myself constructing some pretty bonzer forts. The snowball fights that would follow were legendary.

It was unusual to miss more than one day of school in Miami. Wear from traffic as well as the few trucks they had with plows would generally make school quite feasible the next day. And besides, you didn’t want to miss TOO many days, or you might have to make them up at the end of the year. I remember going to school until early June one year, probably the one when we got the really bad storm.

Of course, you Minnesotans, Wisconsans, and fellow kids from the other northern states might well have missed fewer days than I did way down in Oklahoma, thanks to your much-more-fully-equipped snow clearing crews. A three inch snow canceling school? I wish!

Hey, things even out. I was scared witless of tornadoes as a kid, due to being located just a little ways from the heart of Tornado Alley. I DESERVED my occasional snow days. 😉