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I preferred the playground to the classroom

What happened in Mrs. Hudson’s third grade class might have actually happened in Miss Straw’s second grade class. My memories of childhood are like unstable electrons that jump from one orbit to another. This will probably be one of those blogs I delete when I think better about it. As I remember incidents, and put them on paper, I realize I wasn’t the brightest bulb in the box as a child.

Fairmount Elementary was a long monolithic three story building made of red brick, stone, and concrete embellishments. Long rows of large windows in the front let plenty of daylight into the class rooms. Part of the basement floor is underground, since the hill the school sits on runs uphill, with the playground behind it sitting at least a floor above the playground that sits in front of it. The huge asphalt playgrounds left no green space, except for a little stretch of green embankment on the Cedar side that served as a bleacher when we played kickball. The trouble with kickball was the s lo w w w w n e s s of the game – think of something worse than baseball where you sit in the dugout and wait impatiently for your turn to bat. With kickball you don’t get to stand there at the plate taking strikes or balls. You get one kick. Miss it and you’re out. Actually kick it, and the under inflated pink excuse for a ball rarely got out of the infield. So mostly you sat on the bleacher sideline, or in the kickers- up box, slinging insults at the other team members. Some boys played little league baseball and tried to bring their scripted insults to kickball. “The pitcher has a rag arm” just doesn’t work in kickball. All the pitcher in kickball does is roll the ball up to home plate. A very boring game, and not much exercise.

In second or third grade, I was sitting and waiting in the grass bleachers for my turn to kick. Checking the fence row behind me, out of boredom,I found a piece of cardboard with a round metal insert embedded the size of a large washer. I couldn’t imagine its purpose, still can’t. The hole in the metal ring sort of thing was just the size of my index finger. It took a while to work my finger into it, but with kickball you’ve got all the time in this world, and the next. It didn’t look like I was going to get a second time at the plate. That inner clock told me it was about time for the school bell, so I began working my finger out of the metal ring of a thing. Twisting usually works with rings. I worked diligently, then desperately, keeping my hands between my cocked knees, so my bleacher sitting team mates wouldn’t see the predicament I was in. The finger was visibly swollen, looking more like a long thumb. The bell rang and I lollygagged as the schoolyard emptied completely. Entering the mostly empty hallway I stood outside Mrs. Hudson’s third grade door.

So the electron of fluctuating memory has settled in its orbit. It had to have been third grade. Second grade with Miss Straw was on the basement floor, near the lunch room. So there I stood between the first bell and the tardy bell, with the principal’s office at the end of the hall. There was no escaping the fact that I had a throbbing index finger, trapped in an unforgiving metal ring, attached to a piece of cardboard about five by six inches. I needed a hideout. I chose the unknown door directly opposite from the door to my classroom.

I entered a dark space. When my eyes adjusted, I realized I was standing on a small metal perforated platform. Steps descended into the dark space below me. I was on the back side of the building, where the basement rooms were buried without windows in the steep bank the school was built on. I descended the clanging stairs, and found a custodian that worked, or maybe lived there. I think he stayed there, unless there was a disaster in one of the bathrooms. I remember he was an older man, somewhere between twenty- five and my age now. When you’re seven or eight almost everyone is old. You couldn’t really tell with the one dangling Edison sized light bulb. He seemed to understand my embarrassing predicament, and with a hack saw and metal snips, he carefully freed me from the metal ring thing.


I was at least fifteen minutes tardy, but Mrs. Hudson didn’t send me to the principal’s office. Maybe it was because she had her own problems. She was the one that often went to sleep after lunch. She would eat her sack lunch at her desk, while the class was at lunch in the basement. When we returned, she would read to us from a book for awhile, and you could see it coming. Her eyes would droop, and her words would begin to slow down. A few little preliminary half snores, and then there was not enough oxygen to digest her sandwich and supply the brain at the same time. Her chin would tilt forward on her clavicle, and the book would somehow remain open in her hands. She could stay in this position for ten or fifteen minutes. There were times the worst of us would quietly flood the hallway, and cavort stupidly in our stolen freedom. We were always prepared to act innocent in case the principal might suddenly appear at the end of the hallway.

One other little kickball incident revealed something about my flawed character that’s came up several times in my lifetime. I have a reflex anger response, that doesn’t quite reach the part of the brain that thinks through the pros and cons of an action.

One of the rare times in kickball, when someone must have put an extra two ounces of air in the sorry excuse for a ball, I kicked it over the head of the second baseman and it looked like a three baser kick.. Richard Appleby was the second baseman. He had been chattering some nasty baseball epithets, and getting away with it, since the teacher on playground duty was on another part of the playground. As I rounded second base he said something I won’t repeat about my mother, and I punched him in the nose hard enough to give him a Niagara of a nose bleed. Total reflex- zero thought process. I stood on third watching Richard bleed.

I don’t remember any punishment. Today we’d have a lawsuit. Looking back I wonder if I was given a pass more often than not, because of the publicity of my dad dying in a plane wreck. The teachers might have felt sympathy for me. I never really thought before now about what neighbors and teachers were thinking. It might be why I was able to walk into the Calico Cat Saloon and sell Boy Scout Round-Up tickets to men at the bar who never intended to go. Maybe it’s why the Inner City Press covered Ruthie and me setting up a Kool-Aid stand on the street. Newsworthy? I think not. That reporter was probably the one that set up the fund drive for my mother after the accident. She may have also been the reporter that covered the back yard talent show I set up. It was woefully short of talent. I charged neighbor kids a quarter, to primarily watch my dog sit up and roll over. I also tried to play the marines hymn on my trumpet. Worst of all is realizing those Fairmount Pet Parade Trophies might not have been totally deserved. The parade was in part sponsored by the Fairmount Studebaker dealership that donated a car to raffle off after my dad’s plane accident.

The electrons are jumping again, so a little more about third grade. I was failing. I hated kickball, but I loved the other playground activities more than schoolwork. We had all the dangerous equipment, a merry-go-round you couldn’t stop, and a tooth chipping jungle gym.

“Run through” in the morning on the back playground involved any, and everybody that wanted in. All grades, mostly boys. Simple Rules. Start with two catchers in the middle of the big playground. Nobody wanted to be a catcher. Everyone wanted to be a runner. Object was to run from one end of the playground to the far end without being tagged. Then back again. When you were tagged you became a catcher. Eventually you had a lot of catchers and only a few runners, and a few cheaters who had been tagged already, or who had waited on the sidelines till the end. I loved this simple game – nothing like kickball.

I also made friends, some of them rough, and not just around the edges. Melvin Cook and I had shin kicking contests. He was a short stocky kid that could kick like a mule. It had simple rules like run- through. You stand face to face, with enough room in-between to get a good kick. You look each other in the eyes. You take turns kicking each other in the shins. If you flinch, or react in any way verbally or physically, you lose. It didn’t really catch on. Come to think of it, it was mostly Melvin and me. After we bonded, I visited him at his home at the end of Cedar,where you entered the woods that led to the Missouri River. He slept primarily in an old sedan without wheels that sat in the front yard. It was in better shape than the broken windowed house. Melvin was accused of stealing a sack lunch later that year. The inquiry kept all of us in the classroom past the lunch hour. He didn’t steal it,as it turned out. It was a girl that was almost as poor.

Ralph Brackstail was another rough character, outlandish and funny. He conducted loud open ended bartering sessions in the lunch room, where you trade your peanut butter sandwich for an ice cream cup, or your celery sticks for chocolate chip cookies. Ralph always ended up with the good stuff. I always wondered what happened to Ralph as an adult. Wall Street, an Auction House, or maybe acting on the big screen. He wasn’t actually a shin kicking close friend, but I wanted to be like him, the center of attention. I got my chance.

There were two intersections in front of school that required school safeties to stop traffic. One was at the intersection of Home Street and Kentucky, and the other at Cedar and Kentucky. The safety crossings were a block apart. School Safety was an appointment by the principal. I would think character traits like maturity and responsibility would be key factors in the selection. The job came with a wide white belt and a white band , that extended from it up and over the shoulder. The job also came with a red and white flag. It was a heady ego trip, to have the power to stop adults in their vehicles, by simply extending the flag out into the traffic lane as you shepherded school mates across Kentucky Avenue. Kentucky was a  corridor for Sugar Creekers headed to jobs in the Kansas City.

Ralph was always in character, being Ralph, and I watched him at his post. He introduced a new twist to the job of school safety. When he had an audience, he would pretend like the cars had run over his foot. He would lie down by the road and grab his foot in pantomimed agony. Only Ralph could make this funny. I envied the attention he got from his school age bystanders. He was smart enough to let the cars pass before he started his antics. I was not. Not the brightest shining bulb, I was caught the very first time. My job lasted for three days, six crossings. Three before school, and three after. The principal had a disappointed sad look as he relieved me of my sash and flag. It wasn’t my finest hour. I realize now that my status as a half orphaned son of a hard working widow gave me another Get Out of Jail Card, I don’t think Mr. Maclin ever told my mother.

Fairmount School doesn’t boast a lot of famous alumni. They produced a lot of civil servants, teachers, and factory workers. No astronauts, senators, or Nobel Prize winners that I know of. They did have some competent teachers that made a difference. Even Mrs. Hudson, the sleeper, recognized I was failing her class, and did something about it. . She informed my mother, and sent me home with a thick workbook, that focused on reading and spelling. I was required to do a worksheet each night. I wish she had also sent a workbook on math with it. My mother insisted I do the worksheets despite my protests, and the extra work pulled me up from the bottom of the academic barrel, at least in reading and spelling. I am convinced that the biggest difference teachers make is in the lower level grades.

I really miss being a kid in the fifties.

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