I reckon you could file this one under August malaise. Or it may fit into the “another school year is upon us” category. I tend to relate it more to a nightmare on Elm Street. It’s all a mite trifling when you look back on it from this side of the years. But there was nothing trivial, silly or innocent about it in 1956. Those steps were wide……and tall. And imposing as all get out! Leon told me sea monsters, escaped convicts and creatures from out of the Jarrell Switch Bottom lived on the second floor.
He said the teachers “up there” whipped you before reading class “just because they could”.
Life is full of plateaus and moving on to the next level is part of the growing process. Young adolescences especially are faced with seemingly endless mountains that have to be climbed, rivers to cross, bends to round……. Understanding all of that didn’t help one whit at the time. I didn’t want to go back to school! I was afraid of that second floor. I didn’t want to be put in an uncomfortable, unknown situation! And it doesn’t matter how you rationalize it as you mature. August, to this very day, is still one of my least favorite months!
I have no idea who designed our elementary school. It was big, austere and a tad drafty on cold days. The first three grades were downstairs. The upper three grades were on the second floor. You couldn’t go upstairs if you were a first, second or third grader. Mr. McIver made it pretty plain that we “had no business up there”. We didn’t know if it was a school rule, simple tradition or some type of safety numbers problem.
I spent the first three years in that building without ever venturing even to the first level of those sinister steps. It was designed so you climbed up the first ten steps, wheeled about in the exact opposite direction and continued to the top. You couldn’t see anything by simply peering up. We heard noises from time to time. And Joe Galloway slipped up there one afternoon when the rest of us went to recess…… Joe and his whole family moved down to Bolivar the next month.
There was something not natural about that second floor. And if you could have seen how vast, stark, boggy, wet, foggy and eerie the Jarrell Switch Bottom truly was—you wouldn’t have wanted to walk up on one of those creatures under any circumstance!
The summer we graduated from the third grade me and Bobby Brewer made the only logical decision we could base on all the obtainable facts. We quit school. He had a cousin or an uncle who worked down at the Milan Arsenal. I don’t know exactly what we thought a couple of eight and a half year olds could do at a munitions plant, but we were bound and determined to give it a try. ANYHING was better than climbing those steps!
We could hop the L&N freight train that came through every evening. We’d had about all of the schooling we needed anyhow. We knew better than to discuss the plan with our parents. Grown-ups have a terrible problem understanding our fears at times. They think because THEY understand that naturally it should be just as clear and simple to us. Parents are the world’s worst at remembering sometimes what being young is really like.
Bobby and I figured “low to the ground” was best. When Miss Belle stepped down the hall to have a smoke, we’d jump out the third grade window and collect a bug, dirt or some grass to throw on Pam, Ruth Ann or Betsey. We try that next year and the dirt might be on us!
We pooled our money and bought a can of Red Bird Imitation Vienna sausage and a box of saltine crackers out at Pat Houston’s Grocery. We didn’t worry about clothes and toothbrushes. I did think about my ball glove and my big magnet. But Bobby said we had to travel light. I told Leon we were going. I figured my folks would worry if they didn’t have some clue as to my whereabouts.
Leon studied on our plan for a moment. “Have you guys lost you ever lovin’ minds? That ammunition plant is the most unsafe place in the world! They have an explosion or a fire about twice a month. Can you imagine a fire in a bullet factory?”
Good grief! My life had boiled down to being blown to tiny bits in Milan or being eaten alive up on the second floor of the elementary school.
The speed of the freight train sealed out fate. We couldn’t catch it. We had to face the monsters on high. Me and Bobby climbed those steps haltingly, but together. Miss Dinwiddie smiled at us on the very first morning and I could tell right from the start that she wasn’t going to let the creatures get us. As a matter of fact, the fourth grade was a lot like all the others, except the spelling words were longer. And we quickly learned to stomp the floor and moan as loud as we could. And we’d give no hint to the young kids in the grades below as to what was really taking place “up there”.
They had to face their own demons, just like we did.