Tuesday, April 26, 2005

SEARCY ’46-’56 – Part 09

Chapter Four

Tom Pry

School Daze – Honey Hill

I consider myself fortunate to have participated in something which, for all practical purposes, no longer exists: the country schoolhouse. There was a potful of them around; at one of our high school reunions, I heard there had been one on Morris School Road, among many others.

The only one of which I can speak with any first-hand knowledge was the Honey Hill School, located just north of the then non-existent Country Club Road, on the west side of Honey Hill Road, the site of the newer of the two Honey Hill Christian Union church buildings. (The older one, across the road, was the only one there in 1946).

This was not the fabled “one room school house” that kids groan about when their grandparents mention it. Rather, it was two rooms, a hallway, and a steeple, complete with bell. (It used to considered a privilege to be allowed to ring the bell; the day it was my turn, first yank and the rope came loose from the handle and piled itself on my head: typical).

One classroom was the 1st thru 5th grades; the other – the “big kids’” – was for the 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. Each room had a wood-burning stove for heat, windows for warm weather ventilation, two large blackboards (yes, kids, blackboards were really BLACK in those days), and the conventional school desks, not these all-in-one chairs with a desk arm.

That , chalk, text books, and a pencil sharpener screwed to the window ledge pretty much comprised our educational equipment.

Our individual grade level determined in which row we sat, first thru fifth reading from left to right. 3 or 4 grades would be given book assignments to complete, while 1 or 2 would be given actual instruction by our teacher who, if memory hasn’t totally failed me, was a Mrs. Gunner (Gunnar?), a nice middle-aged lady who lived at the foot of Honey Hill, and drove a little pre-war coupe. She had a neat balancing act to run every day, since there was no way of turning off our little eyes and ears when other grades were getting their instruction and, sometimes, what they were learning was much more interesting than what we were working on.

Attention discipline could be a little difficult to achieve under those conditions, but not Discipline itself: to give one of our teachers a tough time would be akin to telling our own mother to stuff it: the idea just never crossed our little minds. We were instinctively polite to our elders, and that was considered the normal course of events.

Attendance was a slight problem during the fall and spring. In fall, there was still some harvesting/cotton-picking to be done, in spring it was planting. Not being at school for either of those two reasons was considered an excused absence.

I discovered, much to my surprise, that my classmates were ahead of me. Good as the Chicago schools might be, we had just barely dipped a toe into long division, and these kids were going to town on it. I had a struggle to catch up (a year later, when I went back to Chicago, I had a slight edge on my y**k** classmates).

(Okay, kids, get ready to groan): The worst part of the entire experience was not GOING to school, but GETTING to school.

Morning chores were a given: tea, buttered toast, cows, later breakfast, and then off to school. Now, if it was reasonably dry and warm, no problem but, if it was rainy and cold (which most of that year was), that’s when the fun started.

This is not exaggeration, I actually measured it with an odometer on a car just the other day: my walk to Honey Hill School was 2.6 miles – each way. No kidding! I didn’t complain because I just flat didn’t know better. With so much new stuff in my 8-year-old life, substituting two-and-a-half miles for 5 blocks (8 city blocks to a mile) didn’t seem that far off the mark: walking is walking.

There were and are advantages to being ignorant.

If the weather was crappy, that walk assumed the dimensions of the fabled cold day in hell. The “shoulder” of that road was about 4 inches wide, so you were walking on wet clay in the rutted road itself. In rubber boots (the only thing you dared wear), this meant you walked about six feet and then looked around for a rock you could use to scrape about four inches of clay off the bottom of your boots, then repeat.

Stopping at the Varner’s meant a chance to warm the hands while you picked up Bubber, and then it was off again. Same process. When we finally got to the highway, (1.3 miles for me), if it was REALLY bad, I could stop at the Freeling’s, right at the head of the road (a house that’s still there, although considerably overhauled). Gerald Freeling was in high school by then but, as an old Honey Hill alumnus, his mom Understood. Finally, after a brief warming, .4 miles to Honey Hill Road, picking up company along the way and, finally, just a hair under a mile further on, SCHOOL! On really crummy days, no kids anywhere looked forward so anxiously to their arrival at school!

We brought our own lunches. I had a nice tin lunchbox, and an almost unvarying menu: one molasses and butter sandwich, one fried egg sandwich – with ketchup (or catsup, if you’re a purist). In that funny-looking lid was stashed a one pint thermos jug, filled with hot tea, liberally laced with REAL CREAM and sugar. Occasionally, a homemade cookie or muffin went with it all although, truth to tell, my favorite dessert was Mrs. Gunner’s apple peelings. No kidding. She always had an apple, and she always peeled it before cutting it up in sections. At first, she thought I wanted the peeling because we couldn’t afford apples. When I finally convinced her that wasn’t the case, I got the peelings instead of one of her seemingly inexhaustible hoard of apples.

She peeled to a liberal thickness.

Great dessert. Great meal.

Recesses and lunch were our time for play, and getting rid of all that excess energy.

What we did for entertainment would make teachers today blanche and head for the hills. This is probably why we played essentially unsupervised.

When all that cord wood was delivered to get us through the winter, the Big Kids somehow talked their teacher into letting them have a little fun with it. Their idea of fun was to somehow stack that cordwood in such a way that it formed a long tunnel, capped by a largish (it seemed) cave, into which they lured us Little Kids, and then proceeded to scare the living hell out of us, with various threats and lurid stories.

When we’re weren’t trying to elude the Big Kids, we were having our own fun. Probably the biggest fun was making bombs.

This takes a little explanation.

There is this mineral called Carbide (you’ve seen the trucks marked Union Carbide? That’s where the name came from. That’s what they make welding gas out of). Carbide is a smelly dirty white/yellow crumbly mineral with one outstanding characteristic (besides the smell): when wet, it generates a very flammable gas. This made it invaluable for miner’s lanterns and the original automobile headlights. They were very simple devices. A tank for a chunk of carbide (came in a small, resealable tin), another tank for water, with a small valve attached. Turn the valve, it drips on the carbide, the gas from which hisses through a minute hole set in the middle of a polished reflector. You light the gas and off you go.

We had a slightly more elemental use for it.

Ballpoint pens were about a year away (and the first ones were HORRIBLE: your lines had lumps in them), and so we always had a plentiful supply of ink bottles (“Quink” was cuter, but the square Schaeffer’s worked, too). When we acquired one of these valuable (to us) little items, we’d find a short piece of string, and someone would pull out their jack-knife (every boy had one: couldn’t survive without it – try carrying one to school now) and carefully drill a hole through the ink bottle cap.

Equally carefully, we’d thread the string through the hole in the cap. This frequently took considerable ingenuity but, eventually, we’d get it done.

Finally, the big moment. We’d go out in the middle of Honey Hill Road and, while most of us would check up and down the road to make sure no one was coming, the demolition crew put down the bottle, inserted the carbide, spit liberally on the carbide, and screwed the lid on.

By then, all of our peers recognized the signs, and were giving the demo men plenty of room. By the time the lid was screwed down, the gas was building inside the bottle. Someone would pull out a wooden kitchen match, light it, and try to set the string on fire (which is not as easy as it sounds), and everybody was putting some distance between the scene of the crime and themselves. The chief demolition expert was on hands and knees, blowing on the string, making sure it was well and truly burning; then he, too, would run like hell.

The explosion was always very loud and very satisfying – and, surprisingly, none of us were ever wounded or blinded by the shards that flew all over the place.

In fact, the only recreational mis-cue I recall was when the Superintendent of Schools brought us out our allocation of what little sports gear the district could afford. In the small pile was a large ball the likes of which we’d never seen before. We gathered around it like it was a strange bug and debated this strange, hitherto-unseen spheroid. It was too large and pliable to be a softball, it was white, so it wasn’t a basketball … we finally, by a process of elimination, decided it was a soccer ball, since none of us had ever seen one of those, either.

It was still warm enough that we hadn’t gotten into our “gum” (rubber) boots yet, which meant most of us were wearing hard leather work shoes as we gaily kicked the living hell out of that ball, making up the rules as we went along.

The ball expired the next morning, permanently. This is how we learned what a volleyball looked like; if there’d been a net in the pile, it might’ve given us a clue.

Back to the ink bottles.

(Series originally published late 2003/early 2004 on the old site).


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