My School Days
A friend recently called my attention to a web site he had established devoted to his school days in England. It was a worthy project and worth a look. You will not know any of the people but the way in which the material is presented and the very high quality of the photographic material is exceptional. He suggested I do a blog on my school days. Of course I could not do what he has done. I haven’t the records or resources but I could do a few recollections and comments and show a few pictures.
Very early on I was interested in large wheeled vehicles and eventually managed to make driving them a major part of my very memorable school days. I did indeed have an early beginning.
I was also interested in airplanes which in those days all had wheels which showed. This next photo demonstrates what Christmas was like. It was always a somewhat bitter sweet time. I usually got what I wanted and then had to suffer through the adults all playing with my toys and me not getting a shot at them until much later. The plane under my arm was not of particular interest to the big folks but the electric train (not pictured) was. I got two train sets on two different Christmases, a Burlington Zephyr one year and regular steam engine set by Lionel another.
I had a lot of good pals. In the picture next after the one below, taken of us lounging on the swing in our back yard, are from left to right: me, Frankie Kelly, Tommy Reese, and Roland Hiller – all gone now except for me. Frankie was a very good artist. He made small clay figures (I own one of a weather-beaten old cowboy) and he did a cartoon strip about a pony named Frosty which ran for a time in the Pueblo steel company newspaper (CF&I).
Frankie was an alcoholic in later life and died of heart failure at too young an age from smoking. Tommy Reese at just 18 met a very tragic end at the beginning of the war. He enlisted in the Navy V-12 program to learn flying and was on his way to Denver to enlist when the private plane in which he was riding crashed in the Sand Dunes at the foot of Mt. Blanca killing all aboard. I lost track of Roland very early. He came to none of the reunions.
I loved school, especially the library, and particularly Miss Fair the librarian. My sister Dorothy had a boyfriend by the name of Judge Mitchell. He had attended military school and had come away with a very nice wool sweater that presumably no longer fit him. He was fond of me and gave me this lovely treasure. I valued this article and wore it daily for a very long time. Miss Fair finally gave up on the idea that I would ever have it washed or that I might not even know how to take care of it so she asked if I would mind if she washed it for me. I was delighted and became the proud possessor of a clean sweater, so proud that I had to have a picture taken of me wearing it.
Our primary entertainment out of class was the building and flying of model airplanes, a hobby I continued until just after moving here to Ohio at the age of 91. Below are two of my pals, Bud Gibson and Harry Archuleta. Bud flew B-17s over Berlin during the war and Harry was an Air Force fighter pilot. Both survived without a scratch. It’s easy to date this picture to about 1942 by the car and house in the background. The house was our fourth home in Alamosa and the one I left to go into the Navy and the car is my mother’s 1940 Ford of which she was inordinately proud.
Of course we did all go to school and it was great. I have only the one picture of a fairly large group of us seniors in our physics lab. Physics was taught by Mr. Miller who was also the Principal. Some found Mr. Miller to be somewhat stern but I adored him. Physics class was a blast. Keep in mind that this was 1942. We did a lot of interesting experiments but most memorable was the construction of a nuclear reactor using ping pong balls and mouse traps. Another was the design on paper of a cyclotron – or atom smasher - as we called them in those days.
I’m the guy in the famous sweater looking down at some papers in the middle of the picture. Eddy MacAfee is the person in the white sweater at the left front. Leorabel Foster, second from right, generally showed up at all our reunions. Her father had the Studebaker dealership and garage. Dixie Lee Helms, another sousaphone player, is on her right. The only ones I am fairly sure have survived to this day are Caroline Hodgson nee Myers, far left looking down and maybe Grace Yoshida – I’m having trouble spotting her. All have signed the back of this picture and I have an image of that on file.
Eventually all good things come to an end; we graduate and go our separate ways – mostly off to war in those days. The picture below celebrates the occasion. That is me on the right and my good friend Billy Guthrie. Billy drove tanks in the war and later became a government scientist developing explosives. He attended all the reunions until his death. He was probably the most misunderstood person in the town. I was one of his few good friends. His dad was the city mechanic and drove the fire engine for the volunteer fire department. Billy and I spent many days puttering around in the city shop trying to construct interesting machines out of tin cans, solder, and using blow torches. Right behind the city shop on the alley was the adobe two-cell city jail. If they were to ever incarcerate anyone in there the prisoner could easily dig their way out through walls. We never saw anyone actually locked up.
The rest of this blog will consist of anecdotal material dredged up from pretty rusty memories. During my career of growing up in Alamosa I managed to drive nearly everything that had wheels. My mother, bless her, let me drive her new 1940 Ford whenever I wanted – which was quite often. It was a great car for dates. In those days you could get a learners permit at about 15 and I had a class A Chauffeurs license at the age of 16, This allowed me to drive the drug store van (a very neat little grey panel 1936 Ford), a gasoline tanker for delivering fuel to filling stations, a smaller tank truck for delivering heating oil to individual residences, and the 1936 International school bus. Our school had two. Mr. LaPlante, the Spanish and Latin teacher drove the other one. My most adventurous drive, however, was as assistant driver of a flatbed truck out into Kansas during a raging blizzard to buy some used tractors. We brought back two. The farmers of the San Luis Valley were really short of proper machinery at that point in the war. The local farm equipment dealer had scoured the country for used machines and found these two in Kansas. We went and got them.
Two other ‘wheels’ stories are worth the telling: the case of the midnight skinny dippers and the pregnant pig tale.
I had a regular late afternoon and evening job at Sherm’s drug store as a soda jerk. I worked behind the fountain and had the added duty of delivering prescriptions or picking up the cans of ice-cream mix in from Denver at the railroad station with the Ford van. When we closed at night I routinely took the van down to the car dealer garage next to the Walsh Hotel and parked it inside for the night. Late one evening three of my friends came into the drug store and prevailed upon me to take a little side trip on the way to the garage. Why not go over the Rio Grande bridge leading to East Alamosa to Norton’s swimming pool and have a dip? This we did, parking around back of the fenced in commercial pool. We removed our clothes, climbed over the fence and jumped in the pool. Then someone heard old Mr. Norton coming so we had to beat a hasty retreat over the fence and into the van. I was terrified that we would be caught and I would pay some horrible price for our sin so we didn’t bother to dress and drove at top speed naked as jay birds back to the garage. We were dry by the time we arrived at the garage so we managed to get dressed and put the vehicle away without incident. I don’t believe this story has ever been told before.
The father of an old first grade flame of mine, Dr. Berthelson, was the only vet around in those war times for a valley of 8000 square miles of farm land. He was definitely over worked most of the time. I got a phone message late one day that he needed a driver to take him to a farm out near Fort Garland to tend to a pig that was having trouble giving birth to a litter. I beat it over to his office and we took off in his Chevrolet sedan. I drove at top speed according to his instructions while he took a nap. It was dark when we arrived at the farm. There was no electricity at that time in the area so I was instructed to hold the lantern over the pig in the barn while Dr. Berthelson performed the caesarean. We saved the mother but sadly lost all the little piglets.
Encouraged by my mother we formed a small pickup dance band during my last year of high school. She played the piano and drove the car, I played the drums, Bud Gibson was our clarinetist, Buster Wake on the cornet, and Phil Huffaker on the bass fiddle. I only recall two gigs, one at the Episcopal Church and one at the Elks Hall. In retrospect I don’t think we were very good. The greatest mystery was how we got all that stuff and five of us into the car.
Although all in my family were pretty musical I think I ranked near the bottom. My Mother, of course, was a fine pianist, Dorothy played the violin and Jean played the cello. My Dad did sing ‘The Preacher and the Bear’ on request but that was his limit. I did a bit more than the drums. I played the double B-flat bass sousaphone in the high school band and was the drum major for the band when marching. Playing a sousaphone is a little like playing the organ. An Episcopal priest once told me that if you wanted to be an organist you had to buy the church. Similarly with sousaphones – no one has one at home.
Then there were the movies. I believe I attended nearly all the movies shown at the two theaters in town. The mayor, Earl Cole, owned these theaters – or at least the Rialto. He always seemed to be silently standing at the rear during the shows. No one ever really got to know him well. He must have been a pretty nice guy. He gave me a lifetime pass to the theater. I have no idea why. It was a little blue card that I treasured and carried for many long years after I left Alamosa.
But I have a much better theater story. It was well known in those days that ‘babes in arms’ got in free so one evening three of us showed up at the box office and asked for two tickets. Bemused, the ticket booth person gave us our two tickets and asked about the babe in arms. I said, Phil Huffaker was the babe and I would have him in my arms. I was told that I had to hold him on my lap for the entire showing. This I did after wrapping him up in a large blanket. Phil was about six foot three. We were frequently checked on by the usher to make sure we were complying. Maybe Mayor Cole was amused by this escapade and decided I deserved a lifetime award for chutzpah.
I was taught to shoot pool at a young age by a Navajo Indian and to shoot a gun by a cowboy Methodist preacher. There are a lot of other stories I will save for another time.