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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Back to School, But It's Not What You Think

A few weeks ago I returned to Denver, Colorado to attend my 50th high school reunion.  I lived in Denver from birth in 1947 until I moved to Key West in late 1993 when I purchased the Eaton Lodge guesthouse. I returned to Denver only twice since I moved away to Key West - first in 1997 and then again in February 2013 to attend the memorial service for the judge I had clerked for when I was in law school. The 2013 trip was a cold and miserable experience. I thought then that I would never go back. It was only the week before my 50th high school reunion that I decided to go attend. I had looked at the online list of former classmates who had passed away. Tears welled in my eyes. I saw the faces of 18 year olds that I remembered. I impulsively felt I needed to see my old classmates before it was too late. Perhaps I will write about the reunion another time. It's what happened earlier in the day that made such a mark on me.

I got in my rental car and drove all over the neighborhoods of my youth and adulthood. I stopped and took photos of a couple of the houses where I lived and wondered who lived inside those places now.  I was not expecting my childhood neighborhood to look much different. But it did. The houses and yards were different. My house had been added onto, the garage was turned into a living space, maybe a bedroom. A new much larger garage was added. The white picket fence was removed and an ugly galvanized wire fence installed. The rock garden my parents created from collecting rocks on various vacations was gone as were the fruit trees my mother used to back apple and cherry pies.

I remembered my dad and big brother chase someone who had been looking in the bathroom window when my sister was in there. I'll never forget how quickly they bolted from the house. My dad had a gun which he took it with him. Thank God he didn't find the creepy  peeping tom. My dad always suspected it was the tall skinny guy that lived in the house caddy-corner across the street. I always had my guard up when I walked past that house.

Mrs. Young  as anything but. She lived directly across the street from our house. She had white hair, wire framed glasses, and would sit on her screen enclosed front porch for hours watching pretty much of nothing. Her house was older than ours. It was a bungalow typical of what was built in the 1920s.  I would go over to her house in the summer and sit on her front porch and talk with her for the longest time. She had a grandson named Freddy who would come to visit on the weekends. He lived nearby - about one mile away near the old Wheat Ridge High School.  His parents were divorced - a novelty back in the mid 1950s. He had a huge bedroom filled with toys. His dad was a contractor who drove a Cadillac and a big truck. Freddy and I became good friends. I envied all the things Freddy had, but I had my parents so things evened out - that is until they got divorced. It was Freddy Young who came to my house one Saturday afternoon banging on the front door telling me a little black bear had got run over by a car. We were both really young - maybe six or seven years old.  I went over to see the bear who wasn't a bear after all. It was my little black Cocker Spaniel who I named Blackie. He laid lifeless with blood running from his nose.  I remember screaming and running back home. My mother called my dad who was at work. He came home right away and picked Blackie off the street and carried him home. My dad dug a small grave in the backyard. We had a small funeral.  Later I made a cross. 
I drove a block west of my old house and turned left to see my grade school,  Mountain View Elementary School, which is still located at 4165 Eaton Street except now it is called the RE-CREATE ACADEMY. I took a couple of photos of the outside of the building. I noticed a woman open the front door at north wing of the old school. That addition was built in 1953 and my first grade class was the very first class to use that classroom. The next year we moved next door where Mrs. Parham was my teacher. The Principal's office was on the left side of the entry. I went into the building, introduced myself as a former student, and asked for permission to walk around and take some photos. Permission was granted.

First Grade Class in 2015
The first grade class room looked so much larger than I remember. Of course back in 1953 we had blackboards and individual metal desks with with cubbyholes under the molded wood seats where we would store books and things. The 2015 classroom had long tables and computers everywhere.
The second grade class room and then the kindergarten followed in order down the hall. Back in the 1950s student desks came in different sizes. Little kids had little desks. By the time I got to the sixth grade, the desks were much larger. I remember one of the more memorable moments in my life was when I could sit on our living room sofa and my feet finally touched the floor. No longer fitting in a kiddie desk was another.
Kindergarten Class in 2015
My kindergarten, however,  was located on the rear side of the ground floor of the original school building. We only attended kindergarten for half a day. My kindergarten teacher's name was Miss Godley. She must have been 900 years old. She wore her long gray hair tied up in a bun. She wore paisley dresses and was one of the kindest people I ever met in my life other than my grandmother.

I lived one block away from school. Both my mother and dad worked. When I got out of school at noon, I was supposed to walk to the corner of 43rd and Eaton and walk one block east to Mrs. Sorrentino's house where I would spend the afternoon waiting for my mom to get home from work. We would listen to Arthur Godfrey's radio program while Mrs. Sorrentino and her daughter Rose would prepare dinner. Mr. Sorrentino (Pascal) and I would sit on his front porch on warm days where I would constantly try to hit his hand that laid flat on the arm rest of his wood chair. Of course he would move it away in the last millisecond and  my fist would hit the flat surface of the arm rest. He was pretty quick for being so old.

One day a classmate who lived a couple of blocks south of the school, and in the opposite direction of where I lived,  invited me to go to his house for lunch and to play. I agreed and we set out to his house. Miss Godley happened to be driving her car home to have her lunch and saw me and my friend walking. She knew I was walking in the wrong direction. She stopped her car and asked me where I was going. I said to my friend's house. She told me I had to turn around and go to my house because my parents would be worried. I said goodbye to my friend, turned around, and started to walk back toward my house. Miss Godley drove her car away.  I looked back and as soon as I saw that she was gone, I pivoted and ran to my friend where we proceeded go to his house where I spent the afternoon.

I don't remember exactly how or when I was found. I do know Mrs. Sorrentino called my dad who came home from work and looked all over for me. I know the school got involved in the search because of what happened the next day.  Miss Godley made my classmates sit in a circle in the middle of the kindergarten. She then said one of us had been very bad the day before. She told the story of the bad child who disobeyed and deceived her.  We all looked around the circle wondering which one of us was the bad seed. She never said it was me, for which I was grateful.  But as you can tell from reading this, I was still deceitful brat by not admitting my guilt or my shame. I now confess..
Boy's Restroom in 2015
The boys restroom was located on the ground floor of the school next to the original kindergarten. When I was in kindergarten the boys would line up at one of the two troughs to do their business. Boys are boys and peeing turned into a sport to see who could pee the furthest. We moved to the new building in 1953 and returned to use this bathroom from the third grade on. By then I got too modest and retreated to one of the stalls. I was surprised to see that the bathroom has has not changed in sixty three years. Nor have I.
The new kindergarten classroom (photo four above) was occasionally used by my classmates. I can't remember much about when or why we went there except for reading class when one of the teachers would read us a story. I remember one book especially - Little Black Sambo.  My school was as lily white as they come. In fact all of the schools in the Jefferson County school system were lily white. I had no conception of black people other than Amos and Andy which was a television program in the early 1950s. I knew that Little Black Sambo was not real, but then again I did not know what "real" was living in my little environment where everybody was white.
Cafeteria, Auditorium, and Gym in 2015
The school auditorium also served as the school lunchroom. And on really bad days we would retreat to this space for recess instead of going out into the snow. The photo above shows the room as it looks today. Back in the 1950s there were long tables and grayish-brown metal chairs that folded away. The school kitchen was located just to the left of the stage. The nice ladies made us lunches that back then cost $.25 a day. Twenty-five cents. We had our share of mystery meat, Salisbury steak, spaghetti, and chipped beef. But we also had pizza . It was pretty good fare for a quarter.
Backstage in 2015
I think it was 1955 when I played an orphan in my school's Christmas play. I remember the play took place at Christmas time because Santa was the main character who was played by an adult - probably a teacher. Children from each grade played the other orphans.

The play took place right after school on the Friday before our Christmas recess began. The audience was filled with kids from each grade along with their parents. I remember staring out at the audience to find my mother. I did not see her. Later she told me she was there.When I stood on the stage taking the photos I remember looking out at the space sixty years earlier - looking for my mother's face. I didn't see it. She told me later that afternoon she was there. I was never really sure. The auditorium was much smaller than I remembered.

The play was short. My part was even shorter. My part required intensive practice on my dialect. I'm not sure who taught me the phraseology, and I cannot remember my line.  But as I recall my one line brought down the house. One of the teachers applied my makeup. Yep, an eight year old boy wearing makeup. The teacher rubbed burnt cork all over my hands, neck, and face. I was supposed to be a little black orphan.  I got my line out and the audience roared. Maybe a bit of Little Black Sambo or Amos and Andy rubbed off on me.
Sixth Grade Classroom in 2015
By the sixth grade we were all pretty much grown up or so we thought.  Mr. Albert Morrison was my sixth grade teacher. He had fought in World War II. He was a member of the Kiwanis Clubs and got his group to provide our safety patrol yellow slickers and surplus Army helmets painted yellow which we wore while standing guard for the younger students as they walked to and from school each day.
Mountain View Safety Patrol Members - Sixth Grade Boys in 1959

The Cork Board

The original cork board at the back of the sixth grade classroom was still there. My mind raced back to when we were studying Canada. We did a mock television documentary about what we had learned on the subject. We did not have a TV camera. Heck, we didn't even have a TV. We used a giant roll of art paper upon which we had drawn various scenes of Canada.  The roll of paper was unfurled as it progressed through a pretend TV set accompanied by the recorded narration on reel to reel tape. I was the narrator. I still remember one of my lines: "Qui! Qui! Zis is Channel Six Mountain View." Today my old class room and all of the other class rooms have computers.

Mr. Morrison also assisted Dr. O'Day who was our Boy Scout troop leader. Mr. Morrison took us on a weekend over-night camping trip up in the foothills of  the Rocky Mountains. I saw him smoke. He swore, too. He was mortal.

I guess every school has a kid that is a bit different. Our kid was Tommy Myers. He wore clothes like Pig-Pen. He was never really scrubbed clean like the other boys. One time Tommy gave me a twenty dollar bill as a gift for being his friend.  I remember one night I was in our living room. I had set up my mom's ironing board, and I was ironing my money. That wasn't a typo. I ironed my money so it would look crisp. My big brother saw my stacks of ones but got really demanding when he saw that $20 bill. He demanded to know where it came from. That got my mother in on the conversation. I told her Tommy had given it to me. I had to go over to Tommy's house to return the money back to his mother. Twenty dollars in 1959 would be worth $162.49 today.

Mr. Morrison did not like Tommy. Not one bit. One day Mr. Morrison got so mad at Tommy that he dashed from the front of the classroom to grab Tommy by his dirty little brown arm and yank him out of his chair and dragged him through the classroom like a rag doll and kicked him out the door. We were shocked. We had never seen Mr. Morrison or anyone ever treat a student like that. He was three or four times the size of that kid. He had been in the war. He could have killed the kid. Yeah, he smoked. And he did bad!
Hallway to First Floor Exit which Freddy Mander Bolted to Escape
 Sometime during the sixth grade a boy named Freddy Mander enrolled in my school. He had moved from Germany to Colorado. The very first day of class the school bell rang as it always did. Freddy jumped from his seat and ran out of the class, down the stairs, and out to the front of the school to hide. He later explained he thought it was an air raid warning.

Bruce Small had been my best friend throughout school. His mother had been my Cub Scout Den Mother in 1955.  His mother's name was Shirley, the same as my older sister. They lived in a modest little house on Benton Street. Bruce had a brother named Ronny, just like I did, except my brother was twelve years older than me. I think it was our fifth grade teacher whose name I don't recall who continually called Bruce "Short" instead of Small. This really infuriated him.  I remember him liping off to her saying "My name is Small, not Short!".  It did no good. She continued to call him Short.
A lot of what you learn in school occurs outside the classroom. I participated in little league baseball for only one year - 1958. Our team was sponsored by Denargo Market. Because of my prolific sports prowess, I was selected to play center field. One Saturday afternoon we were at our home field, behind my school, when this random kid hit a pop fly directly to where I was standing. A few weeks earlier I was playing catch with my Uncle Joe who had moved in with us for some unknown reason. Anyway, my uncle through a baseball that hit me straight in the eye. I never got over my fear of baseballs after that. So when that random kid's ball was falling from the sky directly into my mitt, I flinched and acted like the sun was too bright and I could not see the ball. That was the only time in all of our games that a baseball ever got near me. Our team lost every single game we played that year. Maybe I could have saved the day had I even tried to catch that ball. I didn't, and I have never forgotten it.

There were two big baseball fields and a tennis court (which we used for playing dodge ball) behind my school. When I was in the sixth grade I got upset with Bruce small about something. I acted totally out of character and blurted out "I choose you!".  I forgot the matter by the time we were back in school. But he didn't. Nor did the rest of my class. When school let out, my entire class walked back across the street to the baseball field where Bruce and I squared off. I don't know who went first. I remember boys and girls picking their favorite. I don't know who favored me or him. It did not matter. I hit him hard several times. He started to cry and went home. I felt terrible. I have never forgotten this little episode either. I loved that kid.

I look back on my seven years at Mountain View Elementary School with sincere fondness and appreciation. I have recounted little episodes of my life at my grade school. These were lessons learned for me both in school and about life. We made it out alive and without wearing helmets. I guess some of my teachers may have been politically incorrect in choosing some books to read and some plays to perform. Mr. Morrison behaved terribly wrong in how he treated Freddy, but he was still a good man. I am very happy I took time to go back to school.  

You can find out more about the RE-CREATE ACADEMY on FACEBOOK.


Daniel Anderson said...

Great post, and thanks for the memories! I related to many of these experiences, but the thing that really knocked me off my chair was the ironing of the money! I thought I was the only one who ever did that as a kid. Even my mom thought I was insane, and was convinced I would somehow ruin the iron or burn the house down.

Gary Thomas said...


I no longer iron my money. I can't even balance my checkbook. Money becomes less important the older I get. I like to make money because
it shows I have been successful in helping people fulfill their dreams
of getting a place in Key West. It's as is the more houses I sell, the
more dreams that get fulfilled. I really mean that.



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Key West, Florida, United States
I first read about Key West in a magazine called "After Dark" sometime in the mid 1970's. But it wasn't until March 1984 that I made my first visit to the island that would become my home. I had two weeks for a vacation and reserved a room at Colours Guesthouse (now Marrero's Guest House) for one week. I thought that if I didn't like Key West, I could always go back to Miami or Ft. Lauderdale for the rest of my trip. But after a couple of days in Key West, that was no longer a consideration. But when I wanted to extend my stay for the extra week I found there was no room at the inn. The guesthouse owner did find me a room at LaTeDa, the infamous guesthouse/restaurant. That's a story I'll write another day. But those two weeks in Key West gave me the realization that I had found Paradise. Key West has been my home since 1993 and my only regret is that it took me so long to get here. I am a full time Realtor at Preferred Properties CRI. Let me help you find your new home or business in Paradise. Living in Paradise is not a slogan, it's a way of life.