Tuesday, April 13, 2010
My dog has fleas, and other remembrances
A few days ago I showed you a slice of life in San Francisco from more than a hundred years ago. This post will describe a slice of my own life, which (he hastened to add) occurred neither in San Francisco nor more than a hundred years ago. This post is rather long, so if you prefer to skip it altogether, I will try to understand. But you might miss something interesting.
In August 1947, my parents moved from Pawtucket, Rhode Island, to Fort Worth, Texas, where my dad hoped to find work in the new aerospace industry. As he had been a machinist’s mate in the Navy during World War II, he was soon hired by Consolidated Vultee Aircraft as a turret lathe and milling machine operator. Consolidated Vultee Aircraft, which was later called Convair, and even later was called General Dynamics Corporation, was located in the northwestern corner of Tarrant County, near Carswell Air Force Base.
In the spring of 1948 we moved again, out of the city, to the southeastern corner of Tarrant County, as far from my dad’s place of employment as it is possible to be and still remain in Tarrant County. My parents had bought three acres of land near the little town of Mansfield, Texas. Since our new residence was thirty-four miles away from my dad’s job and we didn’t own a car, he rode in a car pool five days a week and sometimes six with Bill Poe (Pat’s and Burton’s father) and Hubert Beard (Phyllis Ann’s and Betty Sue’s father) and Wayne Harmon (Brenda Sue Harrison’s older sister Bonnie Gaye’s husband).
I was in a carpool too. Five days a week, for ten years, I rode to school with a neighbor, Mrs. Janet Brockett, who taught mathematics there. On Sundays I rode to Sunday School at the local Methodist Church with another neighbor, Mrs. Bernice Hornell (Vernon’s and Bruce’s and Mary Grace’s mother). I was Methodist before the Methodists were United. Literally. They didn’t become United Methodists until the smaller Evangelical United Brethren denomination merged with them. I still don’t understand how, if you merge a Methodist with a United Brethren, you get a United Methodist. But I digress.
In those dear, dead days beyond recall (well, almost), Mansfield had:
* Fewer than 1,000 inhabitants;
* A total of two traffic signals, one at either end of its one-block-long business district (historical note: 75 years earlier, cattle drives headed to Abilene, Kansas, on the Old Chisholm Trail went right through this business district);
* One Methodist church, pastored by Mary Lou Piott’s father;
* Two Baptist churches, one of them pastored by Cora Faith McDonald’s father;
* One Church of Christ;
* One very small Pentecostal church (Assembly of God), pastored by Charles Pugh’s father;
* One even smaller Roman Catholic Church;
* A non-existent Cumberland Presbyterian Church -- the remains of what had been its foundation lay at one corner of the school’s playground;
* One mayor, Charlie Harrison (Brenda Sue’s father);
* Two doctors, Doctor Nifong and Doctor Thomas, who lived in the two biggest houses in town. Old Doc Nifong saw patients in a small office at the rear of Mayfield’s Drug Store. The somewhat younger Dr. Thomas had four children, William, Dorothy, Neal, and Alice Faye, who bracketed my schooldays like bookends, two ahead of me and two behind me on the great educational trail;
* One drugstore, the aforementioned Mayfield’s. Mr. Mayfield’s twin daughters were several years older than I was. I think they graduated from high school when I was in the sixth grade. I spent many an afternoon after school during my high school years sitting at Mr. Mayfield’s soda fountain and drinking all the cherry cokes, vanilla cokes, cherry phosphates, lime phosphates, and chocolate ice cream sodas my stomach could stand (not all on the same day, of course);
* Three grocery stores (Wynn & Cabaniss, Curry’s, and one whose name I can’t remember, which is strange because my mother bought our groceries there);
* Two barber shops (C.B. Gilstrap’s where the Methodists went and Bulldog Curry’s where the fundamentalists went. Bulldog was the older brother of Foy Curry -- Wanda’s and Susie’s father -- who had the grocery store). Haircuts at Gilstrap’s cost seventy-five cents (I do not know what Bulldog charged for haircuts because I never went to Bulldog’s);
* One dry cleaning establishment, owned by Harry D. Blissard;
* Two dry goods stores, Boteler’s (where one of my Sunday School teachers, Miss Bonnie Stone, worked as a clerk. After Mrs. Jo Boteler died, Miss Bonnie married Mr. Boteler) and Medwell’s (run by Jack Medwell and his wife, the town’s only Jewish residents, who were very old and spoke with Russian accents);
* Two cafes, the Farr-Best, run by Mary Ann Farr’s father, and the other one, run by Margaret Lou “Tooter” Nettles’s father;
* One movie house, the Farr-Best Theater, which was next door to the Farr-Best Cafe. Movie tickets cost twenty-five cents. On its one screen I saw Destry Rides Again and Golden Earrings -- I think Mr. Farr must have liked Marlene Dietrich -- and Sneak Preview and Them and many other unforgettable films;
* Several gasoline stations, I’m sure, but the one I remember best is the Mobil Station with the sign of the flying red horse, run by Claude Galloway, Linda’s father;
* And last, but not least, one brick school building, built during Calvin Coolidge’s administration, that housed all twelve grades and all of Mansfield’s three or four hundred students.
It is to my years in this building that we now turn our attention.
Most of the teachers were old and had taught at the school forever.
Miss Alice Ponder taught first grade. I had completed first grade in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, under the tutelage of Miss Edith Wildegoose. That’s right, Miss Edith Wildegoose. So I never had Miss Ponder for a teacher. But just about everyone else in town had.
Miss Elizabeth Nash (who was not old and later became Mrs. Elizabeth Smith) taught second grade. I entered her class three months before the end of the term, having started second grade with a Mrs. Wolfe at Oakhurst Elementary in Fort Worth. In Miss Elizabeth’s room a large dollhouse thingy sat on a side table. It had many windows with shutters that opened and closed. Each window held a photo of one of the children in the class. Every morning, after taking attendance, Miss Elizabeth checked each of us to see whether our hair was combed, whether our fingernails and hands were clean, and whether our teeth had been brushed. Those of us who passed Miss Elizabeth’s muster looked out of our dollhouse windows all day. Those of us who didn’t could not look out because our shutters remained closed. Thus we were introduced to personal hygiene, peer pressure, community standards, and societal norms. Then she collected our lunch money (30 cents, plus five cents for milk). Although I dreaded the daily inspections, I still liked Miss Elizabeth.
Mrs. Cora Spencer, Miss Elizabeth’s step-sister, taught third grade and often called us “little people.”
Miss Charlotte Anderson taught fourth grade and introduced us to a mysterious process called long division.
Mr. Richard Niemann, the elementary music teacher, taught us all how to play the tonette, the flutophone, and the ukulele.
A young, very pretty teacher, Mrs. Sue Nichols, taught fifth grade. There was a large, pull-down map of a very pink Korea at the front of Mrs. Nichols’s classroom, and it became my job each morning to check a tiny map on the front page of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and reproduce the location of the latest front lines in the Korean War on the big laminated map using purple chalk. I still remember Taegu and Pusan and Inchon and Seoul and Panmunjom and the 38th parallel. I fell in love with Mrs. Nichols. She also tried to teach us a little Spanish on the side, although it was not an official subject. I may have loved the teacher, but I did not learn much Spanish. The only complete thought I could say in Spanish for years and years was the first sentence she ever taught us, Este es el gato (This is the cat).
A tall, handsome, male teacher (our first, if you don’t count Mr. Niemann, and we didn’t), Mr. Carlos Roberts, taught sixth grade and also coached football, baseball, and basketball. All the girls fell in love with Mr. Roberts, especially the ones who later became cheerleaders.
Mrs. Mary Orr, another long-time fixture in Mansfield, had taught seventh grade for years, but by the time we got there Miss Cora Spencer decided to retire from teaching third grade and Mrs. Orr was moved down the hall to take her place. So our class knew who Mrs. Orr was, but she never taught us a lick.
Instead, Miss Erma Nash, Miss Elizabeth’s older sister who had been principal from time immemorial, controlled our seventh grade class with stern looks and a firm resolve. We had more than 60 students in a room meant to seat 30. Chaos threatened constantly. When Miss Erma decided to retire at the end of her year with us, Mr. Otis Crawford (Judith’s father) took her place as principal, and eventually Mr. Glen Harmon took Mr. Crawford’s place.
Mrs. Mary Lillard, she of the red hair and fiery temper, prepared the eighth-graders very well for life in dear old Mansfield High. The school hired a second eighth-grade teacher, Mr. Tommy Lowe, and we were the first class in the history of the school to be divided into two groups. We were also the first class to graduate from the brand new Erma Nash Elementary School (grades 1 through 8) in 1954.
In high school, our days became a jumble. Everybody learned English from Mr. D. P. Morris and everybody learned algebra, geometry, and trigonometry from Mrs. Janet Brockett. Mr. Ben Barber, Paula’s and Linda’s father, taught agriculture to all the boys; eventually he was joined by Mr. Troy Smith. I don’t remember who taught home economics to the girls. No boy would have been caught dead taking home economics. Just as in elementary school, a series of football coaches taught American History, World History, and some of the sciences, although occasionally we had a real science teacher, like Mr. Noble Steelman. Mrs. Ola Dorris Carroll held sway as the school’s librarian. Mr. R. L. Anderson, the Speech and Drama teacher, also taught Civics and Texas History to seniors (remember the Alamo?) and always sponsored the senior class.
Other teachers arrived from time to time, served sentences of varying length, then left for greener, more lucrative pastures. Mrs. Jean Probst and Mrs. Elinor Field taught sophomore and junior English (Mr. D. P. Morris reserved the freshmen and the seniors for himself because he liked to teach Tess of the D’Urbervilles to the freshmen and Macbeth to the seniors); Mrs. Sue Shadix taught Typing, Shorthand, and Bookkeeping; Mrs. Vickers (Coach Flavill George’s mother) taught mathematics after Mrs. Brockett retired at the end of our junior year; and Miss Sally Pearce, followed by Mr. Thomas McDonald and then Mr. Richard Weir, directed Band and Chorus.
Mansfield’s band in those days had about 45 members. I was first-chair clarinetist and later played alto saxophone. During Friday night football games in the fall, our band could make two formations at half-time: A big M for Mansfield and a football with laces down the middle. If even a few band members were absent, no one in the visitors’ stands could tell what our formations were supposed to be. Everyone in the home stands always knew what our formations were supposed to be, because we could make only those two. And if tonettes and flutophones and ukuleles had been allowed in the band, the visitors might have been able to tell too.
All in all, Mansfield was practically Mayberry, only without Andy Griffith and Don Knotts and Opie and Aunt Bee. Everyone knew everyone else. Today Mansfield has a population of more than 50,000 and there are five or six high schools, I think. Many of the more than two dozen elementary and middle schools are named for the teachers in whose classes we sat day after day, wishing we could be somewhere else, and whom we remember now with fondness in our old age.
If you don’t know why the title of this post includes the words “My dog has fleas” your education is sorely lacking.
Maybe you should have gone to school in Mansfield.