Monday, March 05, 2012
Hamilton High School Odyssey
I drove by the place the other day. Something made me go around the block and drive by a second time. As I rounded the corner of Park Avenue and South Clinton, I decided to stop and take a closer look. I pulled over to the curb, parked, and for a minute or two, just stood on the sidewalk, closed my eyes and savored the moment.
One of my favorite movies of all time is the 20th Century Fox production of "Twelve O’clock High." You may remember the opening minutes of the film, as an aging Dean Jagger journeys back, alone in time, to the very spot where he spent a very memorable period of his life, with very memorable people. The background music, the prop wash from the B-17s readying themselves for another mission, the almost ethereal sound of male voices coming from out of the past in song:
Bless them all, bless them all The long and the short and the tall…”
Dean Jagger was on a nostalgia trip; a mental journey, if you will, into the past. Such a journey may be taken by anyone who has pleasant memories, just sitting there; awaiting recall. As I stood in front of Hamilton High School, thinking about "Twelve O’clock High," I became aware of the warm spring breezes rustling through those familiar Sycamore trees on the front lawn of Hamilton High School. I took a seat on the settee at the base of the equally familiar Hamilton High flagpole. My thoughts of the movie vanished, and were replaced by pangs of bittersweet nostalgia ... sort of a melancholy feeling that I had been here before ... right here, on this settee ... with a lovely girl ... the girl I would ultimately fall in love with and marry. It was spring. It was 1951. I was a senior at Hamilton High.
A strange, almost supernatural sound came to my ears as the breezes whispered through the trees. "Good morning... Hamilton High School ... Yes, this is Miss Gropp. Yes, Mr. Hesser is in ... he's in a meeting. Mr. Coursen? Yes, one moment please.
Six or seven cream-colored Trenton Transit buses pull up to the curb; their doors open and busloads of 1950's type teenagers jump to the sidewalk. Over on the Park Avenue side, Joe Layton pulls up with the "Blue Goose"... repeating the same ritual his competitor is doing on South Clinton Avenue. The "Blue Goose!" What a bus ...beautiful velour seats, a roof-top luggage rack ...a remnant of the depression. Still another Layton bus pulls to the curb. It's "Red." He does have a last name, but we don't know it; all we know is he is a nice guy. He still doesn't have any teeth, he still needs a shave, and his cigarette has a one inch ash hanging from it. How vivid everything is in my mind!
"Richard, Did you read chapter two of "David Copperfield?" "Yes, Miss Cornwell."
"If you read it, Richard, which is highly doubtful, I would think you would have gotten at least one question correct."
"Yes, m’aam," came the plaintive reply.
I pass Miss Cornwell's English class...pausing at the entrance way to Mr. Bird's history class: "Listen, you birds, tomorrow we will have a quiz on chapter 14. Be sure you study."
"Mr. Bird, these shoes are too small."
"It doesn't matter. I can get you any size you want."
"OK. Get me 8-D's in brown." Mr. Bird is moonlights as a shoe salesman for Mason Shoe Company.
As if on a magic carpet, I am standing outside the Park Avenue door of Hamilton High. It's a very cold winter day; too cold to go out past the third telephone pole for a cigarette. I have one cupped in my right hand; my hand is in my pocket.
"Thomas, put that cigarette out and come with me." It's Wendell Phillips. One of his assignments as a teacher is to police the "first," "second," and "third" lunch periods for those of us who choose to break the rules of the school. Mr. Phillips is a small, slight, man. He is very soft-spoken, and at the same time, a strict disciplinarian. He wears rimless glasses, and is impeccably dressed. He has a super white, stiffly-starched white shirt, and shoes so shiny, one's reflection can be seen. His uncanny ability as a faculty detective constantly takes us by surprise. He leads me into the office, and matter-of-factly tells Mr. Miss Gropp to write me up for "five hours" of detention. Detention; How we despise it! We miss the bus, and it's a long walk home; especially in the rainy weather.
And now I'm out in the athletic field. It's Friday afternoon, and the end of another week. Don Devine, Kip Breese, and Joe Bartlett are supervising intramural sports. We're playing softball. My team is batting ...I'm up. At home, when we play softball at Plaag's Grove, I smack the ball a country mile. Why is it when I'm playing high school sports, I can't get a hit? For that matter, I can't field either. I don't understand. I'm facing Buddy Rick. Rick is good at all sports. He looks in at Art Perry and winks…..a windup, a stinging underarm fastball….. another….. then a third. I'm called out on the third strike...I'm embarrassed. I didn't even swing at one of them. I'm such a wimp!
Gene Grauer's up next. As I hand him the bat, I hear somebody say something about a barn and a snow shovel. I mumble something about a sore shoulder. I have to have some kind of excuse ...I mean ...three straight strikes...not only that they all saw me miss that fly ball out in right field ...hell, I would have one-handed that if we were playing over at Plaag's Grove...how come? I'm confused.
Now I'm off the athletic field. I seem to be in a shop ...yes..."Hamilton Job Press"...print shop! Who's the teacher?..."Remember boys, FFI and FFL are called ligatures. They are next to each other in the California Job Case. You must learn where each and every letter is stored. Spaces are called "quads "...there are "em" quads and "en" quads.
That Charles Dickens accent! It can only be "Pop" Mitchell ...It is! He sits at his desk with a green celluloid visor over his forehead. It contrasts with what is left of his silver hair. He stops his discourse on ligatures long enough to rebuke one of his talkative students:
"Mr. Wilson! I shall recite a poem just for you. You would do well to listen to every word. I shall be happy to explain it should you not understand the meaning. Are you ready?
Charlie Wilson is a happy-go-lucky guy. He likes Pop, and Pop likes him. Charlie is a good print shop student. He tells Pop he is ready. "Very well, here it is:
A WISE OLD OWL LIVED IN AN OAK.
THE MORE HE SAW, THE LESS HE SPOKE.
THE LESS HE SPOKE, THE MORE HE HEARD.
WHY CAN'T WE BE LIKE THAT OLD BIRD?
Do you understand the poem, Mr. Wilson?" "Yeah, I do, Mr. Mitchell."
"Very well, if you try to be like that old bird you will have very little trouble understanding ligatures. FFI, FFL..."
The voice trails off, along with the hum of the Hamilton Job Presses. And suddenly, I'm seated in the third row, front section of the Hamilton High School auditorium. It's operetta time. We're having rehearsals for the 1951 production of "Tulip Time". Louise Baird is playing the piano, accompanying Bill Baggott. Bill's lovely tenor voice obviously pleases Miss Baird as she plays the piano with a smile of satisfaction. Bill's solo ends and the chorus called to the stage. For the umpteenth time we will go over the one song which seems to need work.
"All right, choir, listen to me." It's Miss Louise Baird. Petite is stature, but with the uncanny ability to demand, and get, attention, and then perfection. "The last time we did this song, some of you basses were growling around off pitch. Was it you, Keith Kauffman?"
"No Miss Baird, it was probably Clark Perry." Clark is a tenor. We laugh at Keith's always present sense of humor.
Miss Baird's glasses are tilted on the top of her head, aviator style, as she calls Saundra Smith in to provide the accompaniment. Miss Baird takes up a position at the front of the stage so she can hear the offending voice, or voices. She taps her pencil for attention, and Sandy begins to play. We wait for the introduction, which by now is more familiar than out national anthem, then we sing:
“..TULIP TIME IN HOLLAND IS A TIME FOR MERRY FUN.
MARKET PLACE IS CROWDED, AND THE JOY HAS JUST BEGUN,
WE ARE HERE TO CELEBRATE, AND WHEN THE DAY IS DONE,
WE WILL NOT FORGET THE HAPPY HOURS...”
Again, the voices fade, and just as suddenly, I'm out of the auditorium. It's a warm June night. School will soon end. It's the last canteen of the year. It's such a delightful evening; almost as if God mandated soft moonlight, rustling leaves, and the heady smell of romance.
"Let's go outside and get some air, Jude."
We hold hands and walk out into the delightful spring evening. I can't explain the vibrant electricity I feel between my hand and hers. I wonder to myself if I'm trembling. She looks fresh and clean as the spring. I'm in love. We face each other ...holding each other's hand. We look at each other and wonder at the strange and beautiful happening. I kiss her. She's soft and fresh, and beautiful. She is becoming a woman ...I'm becoming a man.
And now there's a clap of thunder, followed by a brilliant flash of lightning. It's still June, but it's our big day. Graduation! My brother drops me off at the side entrance to the War Memorial Building. Many of the guys are standing on the sidewalk. All of us feign confidence and composure. Inside, we're all experiencing butterflies. I walk up to Larry McGlynn. "Hi Stony ! ... `be glad when this is over, won't you?" Joe Kasian saunters over; always ready with that smile. Geez! I've gone through 12 years of school with Joe; from kindergarten to senior. I've grown up with him ...and George Morley, Joan Tart, Karen Peterson, Shirley VanMarter, Charlotte Wilson, Ronnie Tarr, Tony Gies, Elaine Globus, Jess Anderson, Don Slabicki…..all those "Kuser Kids"...I silently wonder to myself if I'll ever see them again after tonight. What an unsettling thought. There's uneasiness about this graduation business. The lightning flashes and it rains….hard. We rush for the protective shelter of the huge awning at the side of the War Memorial. My Uncle Charlie Gaudette comes out in his short sleeves and unlocks the doors. He's the superintendent here, and I'm kinda proud that my uncle has such an important position.
"Hi ya Tommy…. 'Ya all ready for the big night? Tell your Mom and Pop we'll be over Saturday". Almost as an afterthought, he reaches into his wallet and hands me a five dollar bill ...then wishes me well.
And suddenly, we're all on the huge War Memorial building stage. We're sitting on bleachers. The kids in the back row are way up there ...I mean way up...near the roof. The program begins. A minister delivers a stirring invocation. Reverend John Oman delivers a short, relevant prayer. The minutes tick away. Feet rustle and throats clear, more out of nervousness than necessity. On cue, the choir takes a place in the front of the graduates, center stage. We look down beyond the footlights and see the friendly and familiar face of Miss Baird, as she begins to lead us in song ...her smile is reassuring:
Our harmony is superb. All of a sudden, I realize the beauty of these lyrics. We've been singing this song for 3 years, and I never understood the full beauty of the thing.
“Now the day is over, night is drawing nigh,
Shadows of the evening, steal across the sky.
Jesus gives the weary, calm and sweet repose,
With thy tenderest blessing, may my eyelids close..”
As I ponder the lyrics, I am strangely choked up; my eyes are glistening ...the end is in view. I cast a furtive glance at some classmates...am I the only one with this intense emotional feeling? There's Judy Britton, Shirley Whitebread, Phyllis Booz, Joan Delowise, Karen Peterson, Charlotte Wilson...all crying. Most of the girls are crying ...what about the guys? ...Geez! I have this lump in my throat ...I feel the tears welling up to overflowing. The song ends. Miss Baird looks up at us, a smile of complete satisfaction on her face. She nods and silently sounds the word "good". We assume our places with the graduates. My nose is running ...I need a tissue, and don't have one. Who would have thought I would have needed one? ...I sniff and swallow.
And now, Mr. Hesser is presenting the class to Mr. Howard D. Morrison. We're on our way! They're handing out the diplomas. The applause, as each name is called, seems to emphasize the popularity, or lack thereof, of the recipient. And suddenly, they're all distributed ...there are no more ...this is the end. Twelve years of school ..this is really the end! Am I glad or am I sad? Mr. Morrison speaks the final words:
"And so, to the class of Hamilton High School, 1951, good luck, and may God Bless each and every one of you."
Suddenly the scene changes. I'm out of the War Memorial. It's September ...I don't know what year...yes I do...it's 1983...a school bus rumbles up to the curb on the Park Avenue side of Hamilton High School. Now they call it "Hamilton High School West". Here comes another bus, and another. They're not Trenton Transit ...not Joe Layton...they're all bright yellow and black. 1983-type school kids hop, skip, and jump to the curb and head toward those familiar old doorways. I'm standing in their midst but they don't seem to see me. Strange! How I envy them! I remember Victor Herbert's song, "Toyland"...how does it go...let's see...
"Toyland, toyland, dear little girl and boy land,
While you are within it, you are ever happy there,
Childhood joy land, dear little girl and boy land,
Once you've passed its portals, you may never return again..."
How true! Look at those Freshmen! Four years of high school still ahead of them! Oh, please enjoy it...Learn! Live every golden minute of it...someone please tell them it's all over so soon ...it ends so fast!
The bell rings; a bell much louder than the bell we had, and they are all in class. The breeze rustles through the trees, and ethereal voices, clear and bell-like, echo through the grand old building and a song mingles with the rustle of those big Hamilton High Sycamore trees….
“The New Years Eve, we did the town, the day we tore the goal post down,
We will have these moments to remember.
The quiet walks, the noisy fun,the ballroom prize we almost won,
We will have these moments to remember..."