It’s that time of year again when countless thousands of children across Iowa being returning to the classroom.
Let me be among the first to tell those children, several of whom are grandchildren of Judy and I, a few words of wisdom.
“You don’t know how good you have it.” (And, if my own children somehow read this, I say, “Quit rolling your eyes; this is a story that begs repeating for all of the former kids who now are among my own generation known as the ‘Golden Age’.”)
Those of us born during and after World War II didn’t have the school luxuries enjoyed by our grandchildren. Many of us, myself included, began our education in one-room country schoolhouses around Iowa. Those small wooden structures were staffed by one teacher, whose responsibility it was to not only teach new kindergarten students, but every class through eighth-graders.
There were no school busses, no hot lunches and very little separation of the 5-year-old first year students to the know-it-all 13-year-old eighth graders, many of whom enjoyed the fact that they were seasoned school veterans and who liked nothing better than to put the younger, smaller kids in their rightful places.
Of course, that was just one pitfall of kindergartners of that time in Iowa. There were no yellow school buses for country school kids, no indoor toilet facilities, no running water to drink and no hot lunches. Even the youngest of children walked to school, often more than a mile. We carried our own lunches and drank from a stainless-steel bucket of water with a dipper. If we were lucky, we had our own drinking vessels; if not we shared our germs with others and drank straight from the ladle.
My first two years of school were spent in those one-room country schools. My first teacher was Miss Arlene Meyers in a school located about a mile straight west of Stratford. My first-grade year was spent in a country school a mile north of Highway 20 and roughly between Duncombe and Fort Dodge. My teacher was Mrs. Anderson.
With my mother at home tending to a 2-year-old brother and my father away at work, it was necessary for me to walk to school. When I started, we lived somewhat northwest of the schoolhouse. A rural gravel road went straight west when the main road curved south. That sandy road then wound north across a railroad track and then branched out with one lane leading downhill to what was called “the old Meyers house” and the other going straight until it ended at a couple more houses.
Not yet 5, my mother packed me a lunch of a mustard sandwich and two hard boiled eggs (my choice, not hers but the ONLY sandwiches I’d actually eat at that young age) and watched as my tiny legs walked away from home and up the hill that would lead me, eventually, to my first day of school. Once, I was out of sight, however, I knew my journey was fraught with unseen danger.
You see, I knew, perhaps I was the only one who knew, that an Ogre lived below the bridge over the railroad tracks. I place the blame for that knowledge squarely on my mother, well, anyway my mother’s family. Mom was the third born of seven sisters of Scottish and Norwegian descent. It was the Norwegian tales of Ogres, as told by mom’s younger sisters that had my not-yet-5-year-old mind working overtime as I approached the bridge.
There was no safe way to cross to the other side, I feared, without arousing the evil Ogre living below. As quietly as I could, I went to one side of the road and peered at the tracks below. No Ogre was in sight. I slowly and stealthily crept to the other side and looked down. “Wow,” I thought. “No Ogre there, either.”
That meant only one thing. The Ogre was hiding directly below the center of the bridge. He’d heard me and was waiting there. As soon as I started across the bridge, he’d surely jump from below and grab me. I was trapped. It seemed only minutes before I finally got the courage and ran across the bridge.
There was no Ogre behind me, but I ran as fast as my chubby legs would carry me. I was proud when I arrived at school. Years later, though, when I told that tale to my mother, she told me something I’d not remembered. I hadn’t arrived at my first day of school until almost Noon.
And, all those years, I was proud of my bravery.
When I started my first-grade year between Duncombe and Fort Dodge, there were all-new obstacles to overcome – girls! My dad took me to the back of the land surrounding our rural home, stood me on a wooden fence and pointed across a field of corn. “There,” he said. “You can see your schoolhouse from here.”
It was true. I saw the school and it was, perhaps, just more than a half-mile away across the cornfield. My first day, I proudly walked through the corn, carrying my delicious mustard sandwich and hard-boiled eggs, emerging onto the grassy schoolyard in plenty of time for my first day.
I’d yet to make any friends at the new school, but it was a horrible, frightening first day. A girl, obviously an eighth-grader, bigger, wiser and more threatening than I could imagine, approached me.
“You’re the boy who walked across my dad’s cornfield this morning, aren’t you?” she said in a very unfriendly, even threatening, voice.
“Yes,” I timidly admitted.
“Well, you can’t walk across our field,” she said. I knew, just by the tone of her voice, that she meant what she said. In many ways, that was worse than facing an Ogre on the way to school.
So, the next day, and from that day forward, without explaining any reasons to my parents, I carried my lunch a quarter-mile south to Highway 20, I walked down the ditch west to a gravel road, then a mile down the ditch north to the next road, and finally back east to school, again walking in the ditch.
After that, we moved into town. No more Ogres, no mean eighth-grade girls. Yup, I had it made. There were friends my age with whom to play. There were no bridges with Ogres.
Well, they were okay, I thought, especially when one of them delivered a May basket.