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Tacoma, Washington, United States

Saturday, May 14, 2016

First Grade at Five

In this piece of my father's memoir he discusses life when they retuned to Missouri and their family.  While they may seem to be irrelevant, there is plenty of evidence that birth order can have much to do with the development of character and events later in life.
My father got back from Washington in the late summer of 1927.  He had scraped together enough money to buy a topless 1924 Model T Ford.  He drove that old car back to the Ozarks using almost all the money had had left for gasoline.  He had to sleep in the car and I guess he ate a lot of canned pork and beans and maybe a sandwich occasionally.  He drove into Bona with nothing byut that old car and one crumpled five-dollar bill in his pocket.  The prospects did not seem too good for our little family, but Dad was nothing if not a survivor and he was not afraid of hard work.

                Not long after he got back, Dad was sitting on the porch of Grandpa’s store one afternoon and someone came along and told him that a man over in Arcola, about seven miles west of Bona, was looking for a helper in his automobile service garage.  Ad was good with his hands (that was long before they got gnarled from shucking corn and, much later, from pulling laundry in a hospital) and he was quick to learn anthing mechanical.  He got the job in Arcola and rented a little three-room house for us.  I remember that before we could move into it he had to buy some poison candles and fumigate the house to get rid of the bedbugs.
Abandoned store in Arcola, MO

                Arcola, Missouri, was a little bit bigger than Bona and seemed like a real town to us kids.  There was a general store, cafĂ©, the garage, feed and hardware stores, and a nice brick schoolhouse.  There were several houses but probably not more than ten or twelve.  The little house Dad rented was on a half-acre of land and had a small barn and smokehouse.

                Although I was still not yet six years old, there were some memorable events for me while we lived in Arcola.  In exploring our new home, Richard and I found an old flintlock or musket either up in the attic or out in the smokehouse.  My father let us play with it after he made sure that it had no powder or flint.

                Being resourceful little devils, the first thing we did while Dad was at work at the garage and Mother was busy, was to swipe one of Dad’s shotgun shells.  We cut it open and poured the powder into the barrel of that old musket using a wad of paper to hold it in place.  The mustket was far too heavy for one of us to hold so we were going to prop it on the barbed wire fence along the barnlot and shoot it at the barn.  We were going to try to set it off with a kitchen match but before we got around to it Dad found out and took the musket away from us.

                I got another lesson I never forgot while we lived there in Arcola.  Richard and I were standing by the road one afternoon when we saw a green Chevrolet coupe coming at a pretty fair clip.  I do not remember whose idea it was, but we pegged a couple of small rocks to see if we could hit a moving target.  One of the stones did hit the side of the car.  It was only a little rock but it made a racket.  The man driving promptly skidded to a stop and backed up.

                We were both scared stiff and just stood there when the man got out of the car.  We figured he would whip us or something, but it turned out that he was a wise and gentle man.  He just knelt down and talked to us quietly.  He explained why we should not throw rocks—that we might break a window and maybe hurt him.  He did not even take us home to our mother.  He just got back into the car and drove off while we stood there feeling bad about what we had done.  After that we only threw rocks at things like fence posts, rabbits, or sometimes at each other.

                (I remembered that lesson about 25 years later when I was living in Seattle.  Coming home from work late one evening after a snow storm, a small boy pegged a snowball at my car and scored a hit on the side window.  He had a pretty good arm for a little shaver.  The window did not break, but I suddenly thought about that time in Arcola so I stopped and ran the kid down where he had hidden behind a bush at the side of the house. I knelt down in the snow and had a little talk with him.  It did not work too well.  As I drove away he whanged the back of the car with another snowball.)

                Arcola is where I started to school.  I would not be six until the following March and there was no kindergarten in those days, but when it came time for Richard to start school in the fall I begged and pleaded with my mother to let me go to school.  I knew my ABCs, could read simple stuff, and could add and subtract numbers up to a hundred.  I guess my constant nagging wore my mother down as she went to the school and talked to the grade school teacher, Miss Emma Lou Maphies.  Miss Maphies and the school let me start in the first grade and that is how I wound up only one grade behind Richard.

                They told me that I could be in the first grade if I could keep up.  I was flat out determined to do that because—even thought he was nearly two years older—I figured that, by gum, if Richard could do it, I could too—and I did.  My report card (preserved by my mother) shows that I got pretty good grades the first three quarters and a Satisfactory-plus in deportment.  I was absent only four days that first year.  I believe that was when I developed a very sore throat and the doctor said it was diphtheria.  They gave me a diphtheria shot and I was back in school the following week.

                I have always felt that being a second son was an advantage in the long run.  It was very frustrating at times because Richard was always lording it over me, pooh-poohing me, and I usually got the dirty end of the stick from him all the time we were growing up.  I was close enough to him in age, however, that I was determined to keep up and maybe do a little better now and again.

                It kept me humping because old Richard was pretty smart and usually at the top of his class.  He always thought that being older made him smarter than me, but starting when I was five I was determined to prove that it was not so.  The result was that I stayed pretty much at the top of my class and that was to be an advantage in later years.

                Our little brother Rex Donald was the unlucky one of us three boys.  He was four years younger than me; consequently, he could never keep up with us.  He was just little brother tagging along or else getting left out.  In a way I believe that Rex never thought he measured up to us, even when he became a successful businessman, father, and grandfather.

                Physically, Rex and I were the ones who were similar.  Richard was dark-haired like our father and he was always a lean string bean.  (We told him that if he went outside in red long johns people would mistake him for a thermometer.)  Both Rex and I were sandy-haired and stocky like our Dutch forbearers and had we been a bit closer in age we might have been mistaken for twins at times. [I was about a year old when my mother flew from Wichita, KS to Portland, OR so our Vancouver family could see me.  I mistook Uncle Rex for my daddy, hugging his neck and calling him daddy.  As the father of two little boys, I think something about that endeared me to him and our relationship was cemented for a long, long time.  He remained special to me for the rest of his life.]

                I guess Rex’s best friends when he was small were baby chicks, kittens, puppies, or whatever stray little animals he came across.  He was a tender-hearted fellow and that heart was pure gold.  Smart, too, but he did not capitalize on it, I believe because he just did not think he could keep up with or equal the achievements of his older brothers.  I have always felt bad about that.  He could have been at the top of his class, too, but I believe he felt that he was always in our shadows.