Wednesday, October 24, 2007

School, real school-not kindergarten!

Third grade from the looks of them. Safford elementary, Tucson.

In those days, the school system had no program for children that for whatever reason couldn’t keep up so a classroom was provided at Miles Elementary School on East Broadway and in January 1939 when I turned six, my mother and I went together to school, I to learn, she to teach. She arranged it for me to attend classes at the same school so she could ride herd on me, no easy task.
Always the precocious child, I was able to maintain good grades without much effort. I always suspected collusion between my first grade teacher, Miss Saunders and my mother in trying to get me to use my right hand when writing. They may have been on to something, but I successfully resisted. Mother had her own fish to fry with a collection of variously handicapped kids, most of whom had cerebral palsy. She was pioneering in this field, at least locally and the class was not really a showplace in the eyes of the PTA at this relatively affluent school.

Our day began with Mom rushing around, getting the oatmeal underway in a pot stuck in the top of the kettle, while she got dressed. In the kitchen, there were two chairs, one an old wooden high-chair minus the tray and an odd side chair which we pulled up to a pull-out counter. (Older kitchens always had these pull-out features.) We had an aluminum newspaper stand on the counter where we could prop the paper so we could both read the funnies. Everyone in the family was devoted to the funnies and followed the adventures of Alley Oop, Mary Worth, Popeye, and Gasoline Alley. We needed to get out of the house no later than 8:00 AM to catch the University bus downtown and transfer to the Broadway out to Miles School. It was always a rush once we were out the door. It was a block to the bus stop, but at best, Mom could only manage a brisk canter. She caught her toe on lifted section of sidewalk one morning and fell like a sack of flour. Fortunately she was holding on to her purse to her front and didn’t get a hand out, so she wasn’t hurt badly. I turned back to see what I could do but she said “I can get up! Go hold the bus!” She did and I did and we got to school on time. Most days weren’t so dramatic.

My first report card, Miles Elementary School, Tucson. Mom’s handwriting was easy to read.

The next year the classroom was moved to Safford Elementary in an older, largely Chicano part of town. I followed. This was an old school, consisting of the elementary and junior high buildings. Everything was old. The desks were on runners with cast iron frames, the double hung windows had roller shades with cords to run up or down. When it was hot, it was hot in the rooms and when it was cold, it was drafty. Safford was a bit of a shock after Miles, a school whose paint was barely dry, but it was to be Mom’s home for the next ten years.

At first, when school was out, I’d hang out in my mother’s classroom doing busy work while she did her paper work, but as I got older, the lure of my classmates’ nearby homes gave me optional places to hang out. If I waited for her to get finished, we’d take the bus home or perhaps detour over to the Euclid Ave. Cafeteria, the Mecca for all brown food and our regular supper rendezvous for several years. The six blocks we walked home helped settle the stomach. Mom never seemed to mind walking even though it was with a pronounced limp. There was always a stoicism and courage which in retrospect we came to appreciate, but I doubt we realized the battles she fought and prevailed in when it came to her professional side. Probably Gerry did, as a teacher with more to offer than her superiors would allow her to do. Mother’s strength was grounded in the belief she was doing for these cast aside students what had never been available before. The Tucson Public School System kept her program alive until 1950 when the Cerebral Palsy Foundation of Southern Arizona was created and all the students transferred to their new facility.

Safford was my school through the first half of the 4th grade. By that time, independence was my middle name, manifested by the daily adventure of walking home. The route took me downtown, through the noisy penny arcade, out the back door and over to the train station. If there was a train in the station, I would stand as close as possible to the engine which made unpredictable noises and blew steam out of various pipes and outlets. The engineer would keep a wary eye on me, occasionally proffer a conspiratorial nod or a wave which would prove that we were brothers. Sometimes these delays in transit would take an hour or more if I had to wait for a train to arrive. The rails were the country’s arteries in the early 40s.

Standing as close to the tracks as I dared as the likes of these massive engines thundered by, blazing fireboxes, billowing black smoke and steam, was addictive to me.

War production, freight, produce---the trains rumbled through Tucson’s rail yards heading east and heading west,
darkening the sky with plumes of black oil smoke. their fireboxes flashing. Freight trains, some as long as a mile 100 cars pulled and pushed by as many as three engines, chuffed and billowed black smoke Passenger trains were filled with travelers and soldiers, while on the far side of the yard, , moved in relentless regularity. The attraction was irresistible for me. It was here that I first thrilled at the sight of the first “Daylight” streamliner with its distinctive orange and red colors. Now the tracks have been removed and Amtrak shows up twice a day with little or no announcement because frequently the trains run late. Though never getting my fill of these living, steaming, powerful engines, I’d reluctantly head for the 6th Avenue subway and walk the long six remaining blocks home.

An ad for the Southern Pacific from 1942

One of my friends from Safford was Norman McCracken whose father was some high ranking Southern Pacific manager. Norman’s grandfather was the first of the McCrackens to work for the Southern Pacific. He was responsible for the idea to paint the engines silver on the front to make them more visible. They had been transferred to Tucson from Eugene, Oregon and they lived in a company house near the roundhouse. It was great! I had access to the railroad yards from his back gate where I could see the steam engines being overhauled in the shops. Norman was my ticket to going all over otherwise forbidden territory. Of course, I over played my cards one Saturday and Mother got a call from Mr. DeHart, the freightyard superintendent, advising her that I was getting in the way of the locomotives. Mom was resigned to such advisories.

The once proud Tucson SP station-my second stop on my daily route home. Soaking up the smells and heat of the great steaming engines was intoxicating.

Roskruge Elementary was my next school and the one I would have been attending under normal circumstances. I was now a latch key child and exploited my freedom without caution. That I didn’t burn down the house with my mischief is probably the dumbest kind of luck. Maybe not, because a certain concern for self-preservation had begun to emerge. When things got out of control, I tended to abandon the project. But it was now that a new responsibility entered my life: homework. My performance in school entered a gradual decline correlating to the amount of time I spent on my homework-a character flaw that stayed with me into high school. There were social skills to hone, or in my case, discover. Being the son of a respected teacher was thrown up to me as a reason I should excel not only scholastically but outside of the classroom as well. I responded to these expectations with typical indifference. It wasn’t that I didn’t seek approval, I just didn’t see the point of killing myself to gain it. School seemed to becoming a challenge and it caused Mom to consider a course correction.

Graduating 9th graders from Roskruge Jr. High. Miss Townsend, principal. I lost touch with most of them when I transferred out of Tucson High as a sophomore

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