Tuesday, November 25, 2014

LET’S HEAR IT FOR THE ONE-ROOM SCHOOLHOUSE!



            At the distinct risk of being labeled as a dinosaur before you even start to read these brief paragraphs let me pose a question. How would you like going to a school where you would be an individual rather than a number; where you could learn and progress at your own pace while receiving personal help from advanced students all around you as well as from a teacher; where you could pick up as much upper grade knowledge as you could absorb, and where you would not be graded on someone’s idea of a “curve”, but with a simple three point scale with the word completed as good as an A? Of course you would be expected to arrive on time, listen for the bell during recess, bring some fuel for the wood /coal stove in winter, keep the snow shoveled, help keep the place clean and orderly, show respect for others, and act as a teacher’s aid in tutoring others who need to lean on your level of accomplishment, and in the process come to understand that you are a valued addition to your family and community.
            Chances are that your grandparents and great grandparents - if they lived in rural America before 1940 or even 1950 – went to such a school; one which had just one room and one teacher for all six grades. And if you could ask them I think they would comment favorably, maybe even enthusiastically about that experience. It certainly worked out well for U.S. Presidents Abe Lincoln, Herbert Hoover, Lyndon Johnson (known as the education President) and for Robert Menzies who served as Australia’s Prime Minister for 18 years, as well as for John Adams who taught in such a palace of learning. Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of Little House on the Prairie was so influenced by growing up in such a learning atmosphere that the experience stamped her with the inspiration which gave birth to her writing career.
            By 1920, the “little red schoolhouse” (most were actually painted white) was an almost ubiquitous feature of America’s rural landscape, with 200,000 of them delivering an elementary school education.  In Illinois alone where they numbered more than 10,000, teachers were so badly needed that a worthy applicant could obtain the required two year degree tuition free if they pledged to teach in-state.


  A restored schoolhouse from 1854 still serves as a public meeting place in historic Oysterville, Washington.
                                                                                                                                                                         Al Cooper Photo

            Often built by the local citizens themselves, these very practical buildings with two front doors – one for boys and one for girls - opened onto their respective cloak rooms and then one large area, with the raised teacher’s desk in front. While early structures featured benches for the “scholars”, they soon replaced them with individual one-piece desks (with ink wells of course) as soon as they could afford them; smaller ones in front and those for the older students to the rear. A pot-belly wood or coal stove provided heat in cold weather and tall windows were the sole source of illumination. Two separate privies stood somewhere out back, with old catalogs, newspapers, corn cobs or leaves for the convenience of “patrons”. Somewhere near the building would be a hand-pump supplying all the fresh cold water some boy would get to tote.
            In front would be a large blackboard, a cabinet for the meager supplies, and probably a globe or world map; after reading, writing and ciphering, there was a heavy emphasis on geography and history (unlike today.)  Rhetoric was a natural offshoot of reciting material aloud, inasmuch as memorization was the fundamental teaching and testing method during an age when paper was a luxury.
            School began each day with a bible quote and a patriotic song, with a recess in the morning and in the afternoon, and an hour for lunch carried to school in pails or baskets. In cold weather, some mothers sent partly baked potatoes in their kids’ pockets for hand-warming, later to be baked on the school stove for lunch. In good weather, the students were free to wander as long as they could still hear the bell, and their games were simple but imaginative. Depending on farm and crop needs, school would not meet during spring planting and fall harvest times.
            When our family moved to the farm in Vermont, my younger brother attended a one-room school house, and now and then I had the privilege as a big wise high school classman of visiting as a teacher’s assistant. And I loved it! In no other teaching environment could I have found such a spirit of comradeship and mutual caring among such a diversity of age and scholarship.
             If education is the handmaiden of democracy, I can’t help but believe that those old “one-roomers” had something that our modern-day “warehouse” schools can’t touch.  By the way, there are still 300 of them in our country’s “outback” today.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

TEA TIME IN THE TRENCHES


            While it is true that the United States supplied the bulk of fighting men and resources to save South Korea from a Communist takeover in the 1950-53 war, there were 21 other United Nations partners that made contributions. Among the first allies to join us from the very beginning were the British. If the Korean War was long felt among its U.S. veterans to be the “Forgotten War”, the same image befell the British in spades. Still recovering at home from the terrible carnage of WWII, England had other things to worry about. As a matter of fact though, British Commonwealth forces sent nearly 100,000 men to serve alongside us in that faraway land, including the Royal Gloucestershire Regiment in 1951 which suffered heavy casualties as the newly-committed Chinese armies swept southward.
            Before making the final stage of my own journey to the Land of The Morning Calm, I processed through the U.S. Air Force base at Iwakuni in Japan’s south, where I was treated to the sight of P-51D Mustang fighters “celebrating” their return from a victorious mission over North Korea in some of the most spectacular low-altitude precision flying I have ever seen. This was 77 squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force, one of whose pilots became the first non-American fatality of the conflict.
            In the year to follow, I had the privilege of serving with and getting to know a good many Brits, including a top secret undercover assignment with two “spooks” from SAS (Special Air Service.) My first associations were with NCO’s of the 1st Royal Tank Regiment, several of whom became regular visitors to my outfit’s well stocked bar. Three of these “Tommies” usually stopped by my tent to visit and trade  stories-of-home until one night when there were only two. Missing was one very young corporal who always wanted me to open up my hand-made locker-box so he could enjoy a peek at my sweetheart’s (now my wife) photo taped to the inside of the hinged cover. I was saddened to learn he would not be coming back. He became the first friend I would lose over there.
            Frequently I would have a chance to visit with these and other friends at their own command post as I delivered close-air bombing plans, and often I would ride with them on a jeep patrol. At around 1400 hours though, wherever we might be or however close the gun fire, it was Tea Time! It seemed that in every small group of fighting Brits, at least one of them had the fixin’s, and everything else stopped while we took time for a “brew-up” with careful attention to detail, red-hot tin cups and all. Either that, or we might find a NAAFI (Navy, Army & Air Force Institutes) roadside canteen – usually a big tent with collapsible tables and chairs – where there would be two tea lines: those who took their tea with milk, and the odd-balls who didn’t.



  Soldiers of the famed Gloucestershire Regiment of the British Army take time out for tea in Korea, where they won a Presidential unit citation from the U.S. after the Imjin River campaign.                                                                              Defense Dept. Photo

            The days I spent in the constant company of the two “Special Air Service” guys (I’m sure that the first names by which I knew them were not real,) were quite different. Depending on where our inquiries had taken us, we would end up at their “headquarters”, a large squad tent, but with wood floors covered by plush Turkish rugs, stuffed easy chairs, and an Indian waiter in immaculate whites with a clean tea cloth draped over one arm. The tea would be served in fine china with freshly made cakes and crumpets on a matching dish; and we were within ten miles of the front! Even though these elite and very professional men had served a long stretch in India without even a visit to “Old Blighty”, they were the most British Brits. I ever met.
            America became a “coffee-drinking” country in the 18th century as a symbol of our independence and a backlash against British taxation, and so Americans might find the English obsession a bit strange. What I noticed in Korea though was the strong sense of tradition and ability to slow down, relax, and take “time out” in the midst of chaos when it came to tea time in the trenches. (I LOVE our Commonwealth friends!)

Saturday, November 8, 2014

NOVEMBER ON A HILLSIDE FARM



            An author friend of mine described the month of November as “The Time Between”; summer has unarguably come to an end, but full winter has not quite arrived. In northern New England it is a time of cold nights, but often clear crisp sunny days. On a typical hillside dairy farm such as the one I grew up on in the late 1940s, the “time between” was crowded with a long list of things that had to be completed before the woods and fields became filled with deep snow. It was a time of hay-filled barns fortified with overflowing grain bins, barrels of molasses and sacks of feed-beets (mangles.)
            The time in which our family moved onto “The Home Place” was a time when electrification and indoor toilets had only recently arrived in rural, backroad Vermont, and many farms – like ours – had not yet transitioned from horse-power to tractor-power. Cutting, splitting and hauling firewood was more than just a necessity, but a matter of survival. In our case we required 20 cords for the largely un-insulated farm home, and another 20 cords needed to produce the maple syrup which was a key component of our income come February and March. Hundreds of man-hours (and boy-hours) were spent in the 126 acres of forest land carrying out this enterprise, and before the coming of chain saws, the tools included two-man buck saws, splitting wedges, Peavey cant dogs and double-bladed axes. While young age was no excuse from any of this hand work, I was usually the family member assigned to snake the fallen logs from the woods where they had been seasoning for months, always careful to walk on the uphill side of one of our Percheron work horses, (especially a skittish 2000 pound gelding named Dan whose fear of water often caused him to take a log-scattering leap over the smallest trickle crossing our path!)
            November also brought “pork chop day” to the Home Place, a time of special excitement for a teen age boy who had daily fed and eagerly watched the weight go on our pair of Chester White hogs. On a suitably cold late November day the split halves, looking very much like white shiny hollowed out canoes, would be slid from the processor’s pick-up and carried into the cold room off the kitchen, on whose paper-clad family dinner table the magic wrought by meat saws and razor-sharp knives would take place. For a day or two my hours would see the cutting of loins, ribs and roasts, and the separation of hams, hocks and sow belly, with “salt” pork and “head cheese sausage” to round things out. The hams and bacon would go into a sugar/salt dry cure before heading to our home-made smoker stoked with apple wood and corn cobs, later to hang in a dark corner of our cellar room right next to several wheels of our own Cheddars. Before the day when home freezers were common, our pork cuts were wrapped and stored on shelves in a small addition to our woodshed where nature did the freezing.
            Our cold, moist, dirt-floored root cellar was home to crates of newly-dug “Green Mountain” potatoes, onions, turnips and rutabagas, and heads of late cabbage hung by their intact roots from overhead beams. Removed by several feet from all those vegetables would be bushel baskets of apples from our hill-top orchards: Northern Spies, Wolf Rivers, Winesaps, Baldwins and Rhode Island Greenings. (By that time of course, the Yellow Transparents, Winter Bananas and other early varieties would be but a wondrous memory.)


            Winter squash, from huge Hubbards to Buttercups and Butternuts would be sleeping in upstairs bedrooms where it was warm and dry, while some of the best winter eating of all would not even have come indoors; left in the deep loamy garden soil would be carrots, beets and parsnip roots, covered with a foot of hay and straw which could be pulled back throughout winter, as snow cover made insulation complete in the coldest weather.
            It was a time of hard work and I would never have guessed that in just a few years, I would find peace and sleep in a tent surrounded by the sound of constant gunfire and uncertainty thanks to the deep satisfaction of those wonder-filled memories of the sense of security anchored in life on the November Home Place.