By Jim Van Orden, Richardson, TX, 2012
(Part two in a four-part series chronicling a boy’s memories of Maplewood.)
The Castles In My Mind
“Ouch,” I screamed! A boy bit my neck. Not a great way to start kindergarten in 1949. Even before that, the day began on a different note. As Mom and I walked to the entrance of Tuscan Elementary School, I had my first close-up of the 1920s-era building. The enormous arched doorways and dark wood trim looked ominous and resembled castles in Grimm’s Fairy Tales. “Where were the dragons?”
The classroom was chaotic. Kids screamed and pushed as they played on a tall wooden slide. Miss Legg, our teacher, finally calmed everyone. But she didn’t want to know about the boy who bit me. Perhaps the most embarrassing moment in my academic experience occurred that afternoon.
As Miss Legg read a story, I had a strong urge to pee. But I was too embarrassed to interrupt her. My bladder now exploding, I wet my pants and felt hot fluid saturate the carpet below. It didn’t feel good, so I moved to another location and created a second spot. That felt awful, too, and I moved again. When Miss Legg saw the spots, she stopped reading to investigate. As she followed the trail her face revealed upset.
“Who is doing this?” she asked sweetly but firmly. I stared at the carpet and saw yet another spot growing under me. “Would everyone please stand,” she ordered. I stood with my feet planted on the stain. Then she walked among students and examined our backsides. Fortunately, I was wearing dark pants and she gave up after seeing no one with a wet bottom. “If someone has to visit the bathroom, it’s just down the hallway,” she said. Whew! I was saved. (The carpet disappeared for a week and returned spotless.)
I grew fond of my castle. It was my protector when Miss Legg marched everyone into the corridor and we sat against walls with our heads between knees. The cold war and atomic bombs were on everyone’s mind, and this was the “duck-and-cover” drill designed to save us. I was grateful for thick walls.
My older brothers preceded me at the castle, which meant I couldn’t get away with anything. Teachers had me pegged from the start. “You’re Chuck and Ray’s little brother, aren’t you, Jimmy?” they’d ask, sometimes with respect but occasionally with apprehension. I often found my brothers’ signatures in textbooks. My education was similar to their experience, including the same classrooms and desks. Most teachers had taught there for 20 years or more. All were women and they focused on reading, writing and arithmetic. They were very good at what they did.
The first books we learned to read were all about “Dick and Jane.” Spelling bees, math “flash cards” and writing lessons using quill-type pens that we dipped into ink wells on our desks were the foundation of our education. What excitement the day every student signed a narrow, scroll-like document that was rolled tightly and sealed within a gold ball. It was 1952, the 25th anniversary of Tuscan School, and the entire school body stood at the base of a brand new flagpole near the front entrance. As we looked above at the gold ball shining in the sunlight, Miss Ireland, our principal, dedicated the flagpole. It’s hard to remember now what she said, but it seems to me she told us that the gold ball would be opened in 2027, the 100th anniversary of Tuscan School. I hope someone remembers.
“Girls were girls and boys were boys.” Especially on the playground where girls, who didn’t play boys’ sports because they wore dresses, hop-scotched and jumped rope. It wasn’t until Sigrid Olson showed up in fourth grade that my perspective changed. She could out-run, out-hit, out-catch and out-throw any boy on the playground. She was pretty, too, with blond hair and blue eyes. I was in love for the first time...but a little jealous because she was faster and stronger.
Marbles and “splits” were off limits to girls, too. Those were guy games and your manhood, even before any of us became pubescent, was measured by the size of the bag of marbles tied to your belt. Boys learned negotiating skills when they traded “purees,” “jumbos” and “cat-eyes.” Thumb strength and aim were paramount as we plopped marbles into little holes in the dirt. The game of “Splits” was dangerous but we played it anyway. Two boys faced off, each holding a penknife. Combatants threw their knives into the dirt to the outside of opponent’s shoes. Legs slowly took a wide split position. The loser’s legs were so wide-spread he couldn’t stand or throw his knife.
I lived and breathed my castle during those halcyon days because I could see the school from my bedroom. The years flew by and when I entered fifth grade an older boy and mentor, David Waltz, recommended me for the safety patrol. I shined my silver arm band every day before standing on street corners and crossing younger kids. A Maplewood police captain, father of the boy who bit me, held safety classes and we learned how to handle emergencies. I, too, became a “captain” when I was put in charge of the safety patrol in sixth grade.
The day my sixth grade class graduated, we sang “Tuscan School is the place for me, there’s no other school where I’d rather be, dear old Tuscan.” The music changed radically a few months later.
“Rock Around The Clock” was a big hit in September, 1956, ushering in the rock-n-roll era. And it seemed everyone played it on portable radios the day I walked into another castle, Maplewood Junior High School. Its architecture was a larger version of Tuscan Elementary School. My introduction to seventh grade was similar to my first day in kindergarten: chaos reigned. But now the kids were larger, louder and smarter. Some things hadn’t changed. Many teachers remembered my brothers…who they taught in the same classrooms at the same desks using the same textbooks. It was déjà vu all over again.
I was surprised to see men teaching alongside women. My homeroom teacher, Mr. Conner, was a Cole Porter aficionado and taught music. He had a phonograph and I heard every Cole Porter hit at least ten times. But Elvis ruled and every now and then Mr. Conner played “Blue Suede Shoes.” Elvis had a strong influence on how boys looked and dressed. Long hair combed high and greased became fashionable, as did vertically-striped shirts, jeans with rolled cuffs and black shoes. It was cool to put “taps” on heels. The metallic click-clack resonated in hallways, annoying teachers.
Mom wouldn’t let me dress like Elvis, so I probably resembled a skinny Pat Boone. I was so thin I stuffed pockets with handkerchiefs to make it look like I had hips. And when my hair grew too long, Dad was quick to say, “Get a haircut before you look like Elvis.” But I wanted—desperately—to look like Elvis, so I allowed my sideburns to grow. That didn’t fool Dad. He knew I had recently started shaving. “Here’s a new Gillette blade, Jim. You don’t want sideburns like Elvis, do you?”
I had the attention span of a gnat at 13 and girls dominated my demented brain. Tight dresses and even tighter sweaters, enhanced by sharply-pointed bras, made it hard to leave my desk. I learned that junior high girls were more aggressive, too. Some even kissed on first dates. And there were rumors about so-and-so being pregnant. Marilyn Monroe was constantly on my mind, as well. I mean, constantly. That is, when I wasn’t ogling my English teacher. I never remembered her name. Her teaching methods were simply too distracting.
I was forced, kicking and screaming, into dance lessons at the Maplewood Woman’s Club. “Don’t you want to take a nice girl to the junior high prom, Jim?” Mom asked me. Of course, but did I have to dance? So I learned ballroom dancing—fox trots, waltzes, cha-cha’s and such—only to find out no one did these dances at the prom. The girl I invited wanted to dance like they did on American Bandstand…and I was doing the fox trot. No wonder I stepped on her toes so often.
A new word entered our junior high vocabularies on a cold winter morning in early 1957: Sputnik. After teachers read newspaper headlines to us about how far behind we were in science and engineering, I was surprised Russia had beaten us into space. Another word, “vandalism,” reared its ugly head that year when a student set fire to the school library. My world was changing quickly.
Other changes impacted everyone in town, too. Construction was completed on the Maplewood Library in 1957. The old library, an ancient mansion in the center of town across from the bank, had served the community for a long time. It was a grand building that Maplewood had outgrown. The new library was directly across the street from the junior high. I could now watch bulldozers and cranes instead of boring teachers. The final design element was a four-sided clock tower placed on the roof. Hours, half-hours and quarter-hours rang out all day and every day. I counted the hours with excitement as ninth grade graduation approached. Another castle lay ahead.
Two junior high schools—Maplewood and South Orange—were the conduits for 2,000 students who matriculated at Columbia High School. It was an enormous building constructed during the late 1920s and shared the same architecture as my previous castles. “Here we go again,” I said to myself when teachers asked about my brothers. I was reminded they were football stars who helped the Cougars achieve the 1951 state championship (the first and only time Columbia won the title). And here was I, a skinny, Pat Boone look-a-like who still padded pockets with handkerchiefs.
Mom and Dad didn’t want me to play football. “Do you want to lose your front teeth like your brothers?” I was warned. They also didn’t want a repeat of expensive dental bills resulting from nasty elbows, knees, shoes and fists that penetrated ineffective leather helmets and mouth guards. I was encouraged to play golf, which I disliked because it made me feel like a nerd. Even wrestling didn’t work out. A serious knee injury had me hobbling. That wasn’t good in a school laced with long labyrinths and multi-floored staircases.
There were only a couple of options remaining and they weren’t so bad: cars and girls. The two were inextricably related. If you didn’t have a car, you didn’t have a girlfriend. To Mom and Dad’s chagrin, I signed up for “car shop” and learned about engines and transmissions. “Jim, there’s no future in being a mechanic,” Dad said. But I persisted and soon bought my first car…half a year before I got my driver’s license. And I worked hard on my new image. If I couldn’t be Colt’s quarterback Johnny Unitas I would be actor James Dean.
But that didn’t work, either. Other guys already played that role. And they had newer, faster cars. Girls my age were dating older guys, anyway. High school was a tug-of-war among competing pressures. Guidance counselors and teachers constantly pushed me to think about college. “Keep your grades up,” they’d warn as I struggled hopelessly through Algebra and Geometry. My hormones went crazy, too. Every girl who smiled a certain way became a fantasy. My car got only 12 miles per gallon, so I had to get a job. And my homework was never finished. My only solace: most boys I knew at Columbia had similar pressures.
Girls, cars and drinking beer helped take my mind off those pressures. So did a few teachers who forced me to think and, more important, write. Thanks to Mom, I learned to type at age 13. She arranged for a tutor and I hauled a portable typewriter to his house twice a week. Junior high and high school typing classes brought my rate up to 65 words-per-minute. I’m sure a few girls in typing class wondered why I wanted to be a secretary.
There’s always a “defining moment” and mine was when an English teacher had us write a final essay. I stood in front of his desk and told him what I wanted to write. “What?” he said. “Are you joking? That’s not what I had in mind when I gave the assignment. But tell me more.”
“I want to write about my fantasy car,” I explained, “a 1953 Corvette with a modern 409-cubic-inch engine. The essay would explain how it would be done and discuss upgrades I’d make such as disc brakes, power steering, larger wheels and performance tires.”
His eyes told me he liked the idea. “Such an essay has never been written in my class,” he said, “but go ahead.” The essay earned an “A” and, although I didn’t know it then, launched my career in writing and public relations. Nothing else at high school had such a profound impact. The experience far out-weighed discussions with guidance counselors and teachers. Now I knew why I had to go to college.
It’s been 50 years since I walked out the front door of my final castle. But I will remember that castle…and all the other castles in my mind.
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(Want to share your Maplewood memories? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org)
© Copyright, Jim Van Orden, 2012, all rights reserved.