Sunday, July 19, 2009

We Hardly Got to Know Him

(There are some losses in life that you do not recognize until much latter. This is a story about such a loss. This was originally written in August 2004, but remained unpublished until December 2007 when it was edited and first published on Facebook. In recent days, I have thought it well to publish it here also.)

When the muse is upon you what else can you do? You write the story that flows from the memories of time, penning words that paint the pictures you see in your mind so well as though it was only yesterday, but in reality was ages ago; in this case, a whole lifetime.

When your years add up past the half-century mark, how is it memories can go so far back; memories that seem as fresh as yesterday, though so very long ago? What tides of history have come and gone since those early days of our lives. The Berlin wall was yet to be built, but is now battered to dust. Wars were to be fought and lost or won. Mankind had not yet gone into outer space and walked on the moon. The Internet and personal computers were the stuff of science fiction, not the reality they are today

Such were the days of that school year of 1955 - 1956. As you came into the sleepy little rural town from the north, you would have seen the site where work was just commencing on the new high school building. Turn left at the main four corners, and a few blocks east you would see the then red brick school building setting on the north side of the street next to the Wesleyan Methodist church building. Behind the church, on the side street was Martin’s feed mill, abutting on the school property. To the east of the school was a house, then another feed mill, after that the railroad tracks and the local grain elevator.

The school building was a two-story brick affair, typical of many local rural school systems in the early part of the 20th century. A gymnasium at the back was connected to the main structure by a hallway to which also was attached two classrooms.

It was in one of those classrooms where we who were fresh out of kindergarten, now sat in first grade as Miss Laser began teaching us those beginning basic reading and writing skills that were to be the foundation of our entire academic endeavour over those next twelve years of our life.

Many of us had been in the same Kindergarten class the year before. Of that particular class, eight of us would go all the way, K through 12, graduating together in 1967. There was another elementary school in a little town about five miles north. Another first grade class was there, and in the seventh grade our two classes would become one as we came together at the new high school building. Many in that other Elementary class would also go though all their school life together. Over those years, in that inevitable camaraderie and shared experience, we together would forge a life long common bond with one another; becoming as it were, a band of brothers and sisters.

Of most of those who started with us, but did not finish with us, the reason was pretty simple. For whatever reason a family would move out of the area, and the one who had been our classmate would be gone, starting life in another town and school system. Over the years from time to time you might see this one or that one, but the shared experience and the resulting common bond was not there like it was with those still there. So over the years, here and there, we would lose a classmate, and usually another would move into the area from another school and take their place.

In all of that inevitable and understandable loss and gain, there was one loss of a very different nature. It was a very early loss in our first grade year; a loss that remains embedded in memory a half century latter. It is of this loss I would now speak.

They lived out on the Territorial Rd. south of town, just down the road from Shanour’s apple orchard. His name was Jack. He had an older sister whose name now escapes me even as Jack’s last name fails to come to mind. I have it in mind he had been with us the year before in Kindergarten. Yet for all that, there is so much that I do not remember about him.

At only six years of age, we were still developing our social relationship skills. Though acquaintances, we had yet to develop the deeper relationships of friendship that would come later with growing maturity and age. For whatever reason, in my six-year-old mind I was wary of Jack. I had not got to a point where I was comfortable with him. It was though we were still sorting each other out, and needed more time to figure out how we related one to another, and what our individual place would be in each other’s life.

One time, someone sharpened a crayon in the pencil sharpener. That was a real “no-no”. I was asked if I had done it In reality I was the “guilty” party, but had in the moment, not realized what I had done. I sought to shift the blame to Jack, who rightfully denied it, and testified that I was the culprit. Thankfully, Miss Laser didn’t “whoop” me, or get all over my case for messing up the pencil sharpener. I know now that a primary prerequisite for being a first grade teacher is a great deal of patience and forbearance. That’s why at that time Miss Laser was such a good one.

Almost fifty years later, I wonder what would have happened between us as we grew older and moved on in to the upper grades. Would he and his family have stayed in the area? Would we have become friends? Very possible when you are at an age and place where most everyone was to some degree or another a friend. What things might we have done together? What parts of our lives might we have shared with one another, if not as close friends, at least as friendly acquaintances forging that common bond of shared experience as we went through our school years together? But such was not to be. What the answers may have been, only God Almighty knows.

I do not remember very well exactly when it happened. I am pretty sure it was in the late fall. We were on the bus on our way to school. From somewhere, from someone the story came. Jack had been playing in the basement. He had lit some candles or something and there was a fire. He was burned badly and was in the hospital. His sister had run down into the basement and somehow had put out the flames that had been seeking to devour her little brother.

That was all we ever knew. A few days later his sister was back at school; both hands and wrists in bandages. In my simple six-year-old mind, I was expecting Jack to soon be out of the hospital and back in class. But the weeks turned into a month, then another month. Around Christmas time I was with my parents at a store in Hillsdale. I overheard a lady in the store say she wanted to buy a toy for the little boy in the hospital who was badly burned. I thought of Jack. Was he the boy she was speaking of?

As his classmates, we had no idea how badly hurt he was. I do not remember that Miss Laser ever talked to us about what had happened to him. I think that was an honest decision on her part. She probably thought we were to young to understand, and it would be better not to bring it up or dwell on it. And who is to say she was not right in that judgment? I’m sure there must have been some stories in the local newspaper about Jack’s accident, but we were far from being at an age and reading level to peruse the newspaper.

Back then there were not the medical advances that would in future years bring about specialized burn units, skin grafts, and all the other advances in medical care and pain management from over the past fifty years that have saved lives that once could not be saved.

We as a class continued on with our studies. As I remember, it was sometime around early March. Once again from somewhere, from someone we heard that Jack had died. A few days later a substitute teacher came into the room so Miss Laser could go to Jack’s funeral.

That was it. Jack was gone. He didn’t come back. If we had been older, perhaps we would have gone to the funeral too. But our impressionable and perhaps fragile six-year-old minds were not exposed at that time to that reality we would later face and grapple with in other circumstances of our life. I doubt any of us at that young age really understood the full meaning of what it meant to say, “Jack died.” We did not know enough to really miss him and mourn his loss.

We went on through school. As the years rolled on, I do not know if those of us who had known him gave much thought to him; perhaps a fleeting memory here and there. And from time to time after I graduated from the high school and left the area to go to college and the rest of my life, I would occasionally remember Jack; the vague picture in my mind.

Jack was the only classmate we lost by death during all our years of school. One classmate later lost his little brother to congestive heart failure. While in high school, a younger junior high student was killed in an automobile accident. One of our married high school classmates lost her husband in Vietnam. But of all of the Class of 1967, Jack was the only one so taken from us. We hardly got to know him…

How did any of us survive our childhood and teen years? How many naïve innocent risks we took. Add to those the calculated risks we took, along with the absolutely stupid risks we sometimes took, and all of that along with the normal risk of ordinary everyday life. We survived. We lived. Jack died. Why?

Miss Laser eventually retired from teaching. Over the years she taught, hundreds of kids got their start in reading and writing from her. Her legacy will be passed on in the lives of those of her students who went on to be teachers, lawyers, engineers, nurses, farmers, housewives, factory workers, and etc. She eventually passed away, her long journey of life completed. I have to believe that over the years, from time to time, she probably thought about that little six-year-old boy she once had in her class; the little boy whose journey through life was so tragically brief.

I have a picture in my mind. Yes, it is an apocryphal picture, but it is a picture that will not easily go away, if ever. In that picture is a beautiful place where the sky is blue, the sun shines softly, a gentle breeze brushes the leaves of a green tree, and green grass provides a gentle turf. There is a school desk in the shade of the tree. A little boy sets at the desk, pencil in hand, working through his writing workbook. His teacher stands besides the desk watching, smiling, and encouraging him. There is joyous contentment in the faces of both student and teacher. Those lessons, abruptly interrupted so long ago, are resumed once more…


August, A.D. 2004
Copyright (C) August 2004. All rights reserved.

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