Chapter 2 Section D
MY GRADE SCHOOL
The one-room country school named Elmer, District No. 148, played an important role in the McMurry family. My grandfather, my father and I all graduated from there. Our daughter Glenda even went there a few weeks in the first grade. This happened in 1952 when my family stayed on the farm with my folks while I was in Europe on a four-month's State Department assignment. After graduating from what was then called grammar school and receiving a teacher's certificate, my grandfather McMurry taught school. The McMurry genealogy I have states that he taught for eleven years in schools south of Hutchinson. He probably taught at Elmer school.
When my father attended Elmer, it was a nine-grade school, but when I went there, the ninth grade had been dropped. There was room for about thirty pupils in the school, but all the eight years I went there, we had a number of empty desks. There weren't always students for each grade, and sometimes there would be only one student in a grade. The poor teacher had lots of subjects to prepare for the variety of grades she might have in any particular year.
Except for schools in a larger city, like Hutchinson, the Reno County school board had control of all the schools in the county. To be certain that all kids were ready for graduation from eighth grade, examinations were given at the end of both the seventh and eighth grades. These were given away from your home school. Believe me, those exam days were scary times.
The county sent out special examination questions each month or so, just for study. In that way, the teacher could help us prepare for the coming finals. I well remember how the teacher would cut them apart and pass them out to us to answer. The teacher also was given the answers so she could easily grade our papers.
Each year, there was a special ceremony at the Convention Hall in Hutchinson for the graduating eighth graders. We all marched down the aisles and onto the stage, following the school board members and any other dignitaries present. After certain preliminaries and speeches, which always seemed too long, the students' names were called one by one, and each one stepped forward to receive the diploma. Then the county superintendent and president of the board would always make a big thing out of presenting special certificates to those students with the highest grades. Also, those students who had perfect attendance were honored. I never did get any kind of honor for my grades, but I did get a certificate for perfect attendance.
I had to go into Hutchinson to Sherman Junior High for my ninth grade.
I'll tell more about that later. Most of the children in my school were
Amish and they didn't attend school after the first eight grades.
Walking to and from School
If I walked on the road, as opposed to cutting across fields, Elmer school was about a mile and one-half from my home. Sometimes I walked fast, sometimes slowly. It just depended on the situation. I always hoped that a train would arrive about the time I got to the railroad crossing. That was fun! It was even more fun if a freight train came along. The faster and longer the better. When that whistle blew way down the track, I knew then to hurry so I could get close to the train. It was a beautiful sight to see the steam spurt out in rhythm to the shrill whistle sounds. No matter how often I got to see a train, each time it was a thrill.
The story is told of a little schoolboy, who could have been me, working at his desk when the train engineer blew his whistle. Nothing could keep that boy at his desk. Dropping everything and without the permission of the teacher, he rushed to the window to watch that train go by.
"Johnnie!" (It could have been "Glenn," of course.) "Haven't you ever seen a train before?" she asked. "Not that one," he said.
I don't know whether he saw the rest of the train or whether she made him take his seat. Being surprised at the honest answer, she probably didn't make him take his seat. I have a feeling that he saw that train from beginning to end that day.
Like that little boy in the story, I never missed a chance of watching a train go by. In the little town of Burrton, where my Grandmother and Grandfather Deal lived, the trains didn't make regular stops. If, for some reason, a stop was necessary, a signal was given some miles before the trains reached town. Usually, they went speeding through. When I was visiting my grandparents, it was always fun to try to get close enough to watch them go by. If one of us heard the train coming as we were playing in the yard, we'd yell, "Hurry, let's go watch the train." Then we'd run as fast as we could. However, unless it was a long freight, we seldom made it in time to see anything except the back of the caboose. If we were privileged to watch a long freight go by, we had to be careful not to start counting the cars. Superstition said that if you counted the cars, there would be a death in your family.
I always stood back a respectable distance from the tracks. Someone had once told me that if you stood too close to a speeding train, you could be sucked right under the wheels. Although I was pretty sure that the person who told me was just making it up, I didn't want to take any chances.
Another reason for trying to get to the tracks for train watching at Burrton was the mail-bag arrangement. The station master packed all the outgoing mail in a special mail bag which had rings on both the bottom and the top. Close to the track was an upright pole with two rods which pointed toward the train. These were just the right distance apart so that the mail-bag rings could slide onto them. The mail car has an ingenious hook device on it's side that would catch the bag close to the middle and snatch it off the rods. The mail sorter on the train would in return throw out a bag containing the mail for Burrton.
I remember seeing mail poles in several small towns around our area. Without the mail-bag device, those trains would have lost lots of time stopping and starting. Trains had the right-of-way as they sped through the country, and it was your responsibility to watch for them. When I was a kid, there were no flashing lights and automatic arms barring traffic across the track. There were only bells and loud whistles, and accidents happened all too often.
As you can see, when I start thinking about my train experiences as a kid, my mind wanders. I started to discuss going to and coming from school.
Naturally, we weren't allowed to play on the railroad tracks during school hours, but slipping a nail or so on the rail on the way to school wouldn't hurt anything. After school we could then see what happened.
Often, the Gingrich kids, Joe, John, Fred and Merle, and Lee Bryce Crupper and I walked to school together.
"Did you bring any nails with you to school this morning?" was a common question asked. One nail would be enough, but two big nails crossed and placed on the train rail would be welded together when run over by the heavy engine.
The problem was finding the smashed nails after school. That was always an exciting time. They rarely stayed on the rails after the heavy engine wheels hit them. In fact we were lucky to find them at all after several trains passed. When we did find them, much enthusiasm followed.
"I marked my spot on the ground nearby the rail. There they are!"
"Look, it's a perfect cross. They stayed together!" or "Shucks, mine didn't stick together. I'll try again tomorrow."
Sometimes, we kids liked to detour on our way home in order to walk across the railroad bridge. It was fun and daring to walk on the ties and rails.
The bridge was a big wooden trestle one with struts every direction to brace it. The main pilings were tall pointed telephone poles driven into the ground. Sometimes we would get to watch them replace some of the pilings. The steam-powered driver they used was a beast. It had high guiding rails and a real heavy weight that the operator would raise to the top of the rails. When the weight got to the top, it was dropped onto the pole. At first the pole went down quite fast, but the deeper it went, the harder it was to push it down.
It was always fun to cross the bridge and then turn around and come back, but knowing that a train might be coming was scary. The only time I did it was when other kids were along with me and after school when the teacher had left for the day. When there were several of us, there were more eyes to watch for the black coal smoke of oncoming trains. There was no way to get off the road bed if you got caught. Ugh!
"Look out, you guys, the train is coming!" someone might yell, and we'd hurry either to get across or turn around and go back.
Another way to determine whether a train was near was to put your ear on the rail. If the train was coming, you could hear the clickety, clickety of the wheels as they hit the rail joints. That was a sure way of knowing the train was close. I suppose the element of danger added to our fun.
If the weather was nice I would cut across the fields on my way to and from school. Dad gave me that lesson on how to get to school more quickly. He said to get from home to school go just as straight as a crow flies. It was fun cutting across. When school opened in early September, it was wheat drilling time and the soil was loose. As the wheat sprouted and grew, it became a nice blanket of green.
The technique for making a path was obvious to me. Follow my own footsteps and a path would show in a few days. On my path were several fences and a ravine to cross. It was OK in dry weather, but a good rain would make me walk on the roadway. The roads had bridges, but I didn't have that pleasure on my cut-off path.
If it was winter time and snow fell, walking to school on my path might be a problem. Snow cover up to five or six inches would be fine, but a little soft, wet, fluffy snow stuck to my feet. I'd have to wear my boots and heavy boots made walking difficult.
The fun thing was to walk to school the morning after a new snow fall. What a beautiful sight. If the weather stayed very cold for a couple of nights, the snow would have a frozen crust. It would be hard enough to walk on without it breaking.
Many times, the north or northwest wind would come while it was snowing, and by the next morning there would be beautiful snow drifts. On those occasions, Dad would take me to school. At times, the drifts were so high, we'd have to shovel the snow away so we could get the Model-T out of the shed. Drifts like those would remain on the ground for weeks.
Speaking of snow drifts reminds me of the cottontails and jackrabbits that would burrow into the drifts to keep warm. When I'd get home from school or on week-ends, Rover and I would go together to attempt to catch them. It was rarely done! When we got to the opening of the hole, they would break through the snow at another place and get away from us.
Another interesting sight on my way to school was the old passenger depot, now rarely used. The passenger trains were few and far between. The automobile was beginning to take over as a faster way to get from here to there. I always liked to stop a few minutes to inspect that structure. There were names and interesting pictures engraved into its walls. Some of them were slightly bawdy or dirty, the product of railroad bums and, sometimes, the older boys from school.
If I found I had tarried too long anywhere along my path, I would rush
across the last part. I couldn't be late. My report card would let my folks
know about that.
The teacher I best remember of my eight years at Elmer is Wilma Carroll. When she was hired as our teacher at Elmer school, our parents thought it nice for us to call her Miss Wilma. The Carroll family had lived in and around the Hutchinson area for many years. My folks and others who had known the family for a long time thought of Miss Wilma as more than just another school teacher.
Since we always had more than seven pupils in our school, I'm not sure why there are so few in this picture with our teacher,. Miss Wilma. I'm second from the left on the back row.
Miss Wilma gave me my first paying job. For the fantastic figure of one dollar a month I was to bring in the kindling and coal from the coal house. I'm not sure why she gave me that job. Perhaps she didn't want to get her hands and dress dirty, or it could be she wanted to get all her papers graded before going home from school.
Two things about the job made it not too lucrative. First, I didn't have a year-round job since we didn't have to heat the school room during the warmer days. Second, Stanley, another third grader came into the picture. Miss Wilma gave the job to him after I had it a short while. I don't know why she gave it to him so soon, but I do know I lost my job. I thought I was doing just fine, but I got fired! Get hired and get fired! That's the way it happens sometimes.
Miss Wilma did give me what I considered a rather poor excuse. She said, "Stanley lives along the road to and from school and I can give him rides. You have to walk to school early or leave late to do the job. I don't want you to have to do that."
The bad feelings about losing the job didn't last long, however. I really didn't like having to rush around getting the job done before leaving for home. The money didn't mean much to me either. Secretly, I think I was happy about losing that job. I now had more time to play, and Stanley had to stay after school or come early.
Miss Wilma had a beau. Honestly, I didn't like the idea of someone taking my place! I liked her a lot so when that crazy suave nut, with his shiny, slick, black Tudor Model-T Ford sedan, got into the picture I resented him. He was just not good enough for Miss Wilma. I was sure of that!
To make things worse, once in awhile he would pick her up after school. Sometimes, if I were walking home on the main road, he would pass me. On a hot, dry day a white cloud of dust would trail behind his car, or blow around in front of it, depending upon the direction of the wind. Either way, I got the benefit of the dust!
That wasn't all. There was always that moment when he returned with Miss Wilma. Sometimes, he would stop the car and the door would open.
"Jump in," Miss Wilma would say.
That crazy guy always started like a bullet. When we came to the railroad track, he'd hit it full speed. It was awful!
Since the train turned as it went through Elmer, the track was not at all even at that point. Slow speed as one crossed it was the usual rule, but not for Miss Wilma's beau. He threw caution to the wind and kept going full speed.
When his wheels hit the raised-up rail of the curve, watch out! I didn't exactly take a flying leap, but I certainly did hit the top!
That guy never would say he was sorry, or even utter, "Oops!"
Miss Wilma would say something like, "Ooooooh," and that was it. I always
knew she was embarrassed. Of course, I'd never say a word. I'd just soothe
my feelings and calmly say "Thanks for the ride," when they let me out
at my corner.
I had other teachers at Elmer besides Miss Wilma. There were Miss Tinsley,
Miss Mary and another teacher whose name escapes me. I tried to forget
her on purpose because she was an awful teacher. She was my seventh grade
teacher and she almost caused me to fail the county examinations. That
teacher was also the one that believed in the ruler as a means of punishment.
She always had it in for Lee Bryce. One day she told him to hold out his
hand, knuckles up, and whacked him several times with the steel edge of
the ruler. Not only did Lee Bryce yell out, but he had festers that lasted
for a week or so. I told my folks about that incident and they were incensed
over it. One morning when I was in line marching into the school room,
just as I stepped into the foyer, she slapped me good on both sides of
my head. I was stunned! I had no idea what provoked that slapping. I didn't
say anything, but walked to my desk bewildered. The only thing I could
figure out was that my folks had said something to her concerning her punishment
of Lee Bryce and she was taking her anger out on me. She didn't finish
the year out. Since I was so far behind in arithmetic, Mom had to help
me at home. Miss Grace came to finish the term, and returned the next year,
which was the year I graduated from the eighth grade, thus finishing my
schooling at Elmer School.
This seems an appropriate place to tell more about the Amish people who lived in our area. They were all farmers and it seems most had come from Pennsylvania to form a community south of Hutchinson. I do know that my wife's grandparents were in the Pennsylvania group.
Before I got to grade school at Elmer, I didn't know much about the Amish folk. I could watch them going and coming from town in their buggies. Some buggies were pulled by one and some by two horses. All I knew then was that it was a very slow way to get "from here to there." I didn't catch on to the difference between the one and two horse arrangements until I realized it had something to do with the load being carried. If you were making a quick ride to town with one person, one snappy horse could do the job. That horse could start out on a trot and never stop until it reached its destination, or if the driver pulled it to a stop. The two-horse rigs were for taking the family to town or church. Those horses were always slower and capable of pulling more weight before tiring.
That was about all I paid attention to about the Amish. I did notice that their clothes were very dull colors. The men always had black felt hats, and wore black suspenders and awkward pants. The women always had black bonnets and plain-colored very long dresses.
Soon after I started to school I started to observe how the Amish boys pants were made. I discovered they had no buttons at all, just hooks and eyes. I never did learn why the Amish disliked buttons. Watching the boys in the toilet was interesting to me. In the first place, there was no hole in their pants such as I had. I thought that was a dumb way to make clothes for boys and men. True, I hated the buttons that had to be unbuttoned to open the hole, especially if my overalls were new. Even when they had been washed several times, those darned buttons were almost impossible to open. Oh for convenient zippers, but they hadn't been invented yet!
There was enough of a problem with my type pants. When I was in a hurry, the results were generally disastrous. Rebuttoning was just as much of a problem, and as a result, I usually just didn't bother.
The Amish boys' pants had a band around the waist that would stay hooked at all times unless they were going to undress or needed to sit down on the toilet. In the front of the pants was a large flap, which, when dropped, exposed their entire front. What a great idea! No buttons to unbutton or rebutton each time. At first I thought that was a great idea, but then when I realized there were eight or ten hooks and eyes to either unhook or hook before the task of going to the toilet was finished, I changed my mind. They would have been a problem for me. What I really liked was my bib overalls with a big slot and the buttonholes already unbuttoned ready for use.
Another thing different about the Amish kids was their haircuts. They were all uniquely similar. As it was commonly supposed that their parents used an upside-down bowl or crock to guide their scissors, we called them "crock" haircuts. Their hair was never thinned, and was always straight and jet black. Apparently, the crock was placed on the head so that in front it was just above the eyebrows and at the sides just the lower tips of the ears showed.
There were several Amish kids in my school. Some of their names were Freddie, Nettie, Levi, Jerry, Henry and Sarah. There were others but I can't remember all of them. They all spoke low German or Dutch. The Gingrich kids, who lived closest to me and were my best friends, were only one step from Amish so I counted them as Amish. Their family had forsaken the Amish ways and had become Old Mennonites. After Helen, my sister died, I remember one year I was the only non-Amish kid in school. That was unusual, however. There were usually non-Amish kids. Some I remember were Nadine and her older brother, Goldie, Stanley, Virginia, and Wallie.
Telling about the Amish kids, reminds me of Jerry and Henry. They were brothers and they often got very mad at each other. When this happened, watch out! A real fight took place if they weren't stopped. First, they glared at each other and made horrible faces. Their eyes glistened and their thick black hair shook on their heads as they threatened each other. Then the fighting began!
"Teacher! Teacher!" one of the girls usually yelled, running inside the school to tell the teacher. "Jerry and Henry are fighting again!"
Now when the Amish brothers got into a fight it could hardly be called a "brotherly" squabble. In the first place they were large boys for their age, Jerry being slightly larger. That didn't make any difference to Henry, however. The fact he was a little smaller made him fight that much harder.
When the boys started to squabble, none of us wanted to get involved. What took place could have passed as pure honest-to-goodness fighting. Those kids used none of the neat rules set down in 1867 by the Englishman Sir John Sholto Dough, the 8th Marquis of Queensberry. His rules were known as the Queensberry Rules for Fighting. I don't know anything about the rules for fighting before 1867, but I do know that Henry and Jerry had their own rules. In fact, they had no rules at all. I watched several of those fights and there was nothing in the Queensberry rules I read years later remotely resembling what I saw happening.
First, it seemed as if they were trying to break each other's necks. Then one of them would fall to the ground. The other one would stomp on him as if he were a sack of oats. Then they began to yell and cuss in Dutch and cry like babies.
"Jerry! Henry! Stop that fighting right this minute!" the teacher begged, when she arrived on the scene. But to no avail. The fight was on and would continue until their internal springs wound down.
Most of the kids stood around, at a safe distance, and watched the fracas. Some of the girls were afraid and cried, but others just giggled. I, secretly, was on Henry's side because he was my age. I felt that Jerry was really just a big brute. Those boys pulled hair out by its roots, clawed faces and arms with their fingernails until the blood ran, and hit each other with both fists, smashing their noses, cheeks and eyebrows. Black eyes showed right away. They twisted arms, legs, fingers and ears, and screamed bloody-murder. They kicked each other viciously in and around every known sensitive body area. Oh, yes, I forgot to say that they could bite like badgers when the opportunity came.
Those fights between Jerry and Henry were quite frequent, but, surprisingly, they rarely hurt themselves seriously. No knives or weapons were used, thank goodness.
Finally, when they had worn each other out, the teacher's commands would prevail.
"March yourselves right inside, right now," she commanded. "The rest of you go take your seats!"
We kids responded meekly, but only after the boys got up from the ground and started to go inside with her following them.
"Jerry, march yourself right to that front corner and hide your face in it. Henry, you do the same in the other corner." She really was in control now. "And don't either of you speak or leave those corners until I tell you!"
Henry usually bawled and snotted around, acting sorry for his actions, but Jerry never had any remorse at all. He just stood there.
"Children, continue with your school work," the teacher commanded.
We did, and finally Jerry and Henry quieted down and the teacher let
them take their seats. Her only weapon was her lecturing and she could
do that quite well.
Both the Methodist Church and Elmer school had cast iron bells in their belfries. The bell in the church seemed smaller to me, but since it was a lot higher up, I probably imagined it was smaller. Actually, it must have been larger because it rang so much louder. The church folks wanted it to be heard at a greater distance.
The bells and how they worked always were exciting to me. I was too small to climb up to the church belfry so I'll have to tell you about the school bell.
Like most country school buildings, there was a belfry just above the entrance doors. The bell was about twenty inches in diameter at the bottom. The top was welded to an up-side-down u-shaped bar. The two ends of the u-shaped bar were fitted into a "cradle-shaped" metal arrangement which was fastened to the floor of the belfry. The bell and the u-shaped bar were well-balanced in the cradle holder. Suspended from the top of the bell on the inside was the ringer. It was about fourteen inches long with a large iron ball on the end. When the bell itself was moved, the flopper remained somewhat stationary until it was hit by the rim of the bell.
A large iron pulley was welded to one side of the u-shaped bar. A long rope was fastened to the pulley at its four o'clock position. This rope was wrapped around the pulley in a clockwise manner, over the top and then it was threaded straight down through the belfry, the roof and a hole in the ceiling of the front hall.
The bell rope was long enough to let the smallest kid ring the bell and sometimes the teacher would say, "Who wants to ring the bell this time?"
What a silly question to ask when ten or twelve kids are standing around just dying to pull down on that rope.
"Can I ring the bell?" Jerry, one of the larger kids asked.
The teacher would probably correct his "can" for a "may" before answering. "Yes, but be careful not to pull too hard, or--. Oh no, she gasped!"
But it was too late. She knew she had made a mistake letting Jerry pull the rope. It was a disaster! He had pulled the rope so hard that the bell turned completely over. The bell went clank and came to a complete standstill.
"Look what you've done," she said. "Now we're not going to have a bell until someone climbs onto the roof and fixes it."
"I'll do it," Henry said, rushing to get the ladder from the coal room where it was stored for such emergencies.
Ordinarily it was no easy task to put that long ladder up to the roof, but, Henry was a strong kid. As quick as a wink, he was up on the roof. The rest of us kids circled around at a distance to watch. The pitch of the roof was so steep that Henry had to hang on to the edge to keep from slipping down.
"Henry, don't climb up there, you're going to fall and kill yourself," the teacher called.
But Henry was the hero of the day and he had no intention of falling. He carefully edged himself up the roof and moved closer and closer to the belfry. The kids were having a ball. The teacher was petrified. The entire thing was a picnic.
I was watching the whole thing at the foot of the ladder. I knew that someone had to hold the foot of the ladder to keep it from slipping.
Soon Henry reached the belfry and carefully pulled himself through the opening where the bell was hung.
"Hi kids!" Henry called from the belfry. "There are pigeon nests all over the place up here; and, yes, there are some eggs, too!"
"Henry, stop your messing around and turn that bell back where it belongs. Don't forget to straighten the rope and slip it onto the pulley."
Soon Henry was climbing out from the belfry, but as in many situations, getting up is the easiest part. As he started down feet first he lost his grip on the edge of the belfry and began to slide. The teacher and the kids screamed. They knew Henry was going to slide right off the edge of the roof.
"Henry, Henry, you're going to get killed!" she shrieked.
Yes, Henry was sliding down the roof, but he had flattened himself, slowing his descent. I had watched his sliding and quickly moved the ladder so he could feel it with his feet. Finally feet and ladder connected, halting the sliding Henry. He carefully finished the descent to the ground, and stood there proud of himself.
"Henry, you scared me half to death," the teacher gasped. Then, teacher as she was, she made an object lesson over the entire escapade. "From now on, I think I should ring the bell. We don't want that to happen again. We are lucky that Henry wasn't hurt or even killed."
Frankly, the kids enjoyed the entire situation. They had a very, very good time and didn't have to go to class while it was going on.
Henry was the hero for that day. I can still see him grinning.
The Toilets (more commomly called Outhouses)
In good weather, when we kids arrived at school, we played in the playground until the teacher rang the first bell. She was always on schedule. She would make her trip to the toilet before she rang the first gong. Everyone knew what to do on the first gong. That was the warning that we must stop playing and rush to the toilet before the second gong. I was one of those kids that played hard and it was difficult to stop playing long enough to realize I needed to go to the toilet. You needed to be one of the first ones there if you wanted to sit down. Although there were four holes, one large, two medium and one small, it seemed that all the holes were already wet by the time I arrived. The boys weren't too careful at aiming at even the large one. If the toilet was full, we could use the outside blind. In those days there was nothing like today's nice gleaming porcelain urinals. In a few places there would be a wood trough to pee in, but not at my school. If I was inside, I had to stand there and look down at the piles below. It always gagged me. Those old toilets always stunk to high heaven. Someone would clean them at the beginning of the school year, but by the time school ended, they would be a mess. The one used by the boys was especially bad.
Toilet paper? What else but a new catalog with lots of black ink all over it. Enough said! No wait, there is something else. It is about the little holes that some boys would carve through the walls. It seemed that there was always a variety of peep holes on the side facing the school house. Then, there were always several holes on the side facing the girls' toilet. I don't know what the other guys saw through those holes, but I never could see a dumb thing. Once in a while I could see some girls running towards the toilet. There was always lots of giggling, both as they came and as they left. I don't know who spent the most time in those toilets, the girls or us guys. If we spent too much time there, the teacher would come to inspect what was going on. Someone always kept a lookout through one of the holes towards the school. If the teacher was coming in our direction, we would clear out fast.
There were always penciled pictures around the holes. It was as though the best picture gave you the best view out. They all looked the same to me. However, they seemed to cause lots of interesting conversation, especially amongst the Amish boys. During those few years when I was about the only non-Amish boy in school, I got lots of sex education that was slightly slanted. Looking at ourselves with our pants off seemed to be an interesting "educational" pastime.
The girls' toilet was on the west side of the school. I don't know if that was a custom or not, but at Elmer the girls' toilet was on the left and the boys' on the right side of the building. For sure, boys were forbidden access to the girls' toilet. "Law knows" what the teacher would do to us if she caught one of us guys looking in. Several times, after school hours and the teacher had left, I looked into the girls' toilet. I couldn't believe my eyes. The seats were dry and there was no trash around. Yes, I did find a small hole or two. I figured that they were put there by some boy. After all girls didn't carry pocket knives. The girls' toilet had the same familiar catalog and the same awful stink. The most striking difference was that girls didn't seem to pee all over the seat holes. What a revelation!
"There goes the last gong," some kid would say, and wet pants and all we ran to the school door and stood in our familiar two rows waiting for the phonograph to play a spirited march. Then we'd march into the room. When we got to our seats, we stood at attention waiting for the teacher to check our hands, both sides mind you. Then she would give the word, "You now may be seated."
If one had to leave the room to go to the toilet during school hours,
there was a definite procedure to follow. Now just why the teacher needed
to know whether we needed to pee or poop, I still don't know. However,
it seemed to be important. One finger meant pee and two meant poop. If
they meant more than that, I was too dumb to figure it out. Maybe it meant
one for boys and two for girls. Or, perhaps one meant a slight need to
go and two meant an emergency. Who knows! Maybe I have forgotten the details.
Anyway, I guess signals made the entire routine more dainty, or did it?
I don't remember the exact number of desks in Elmer school, but I do remember how they were arranged. There were six rows. The kids in the upper grades sat in the two outside rows. The desks were graduated in size so the largest kids were at the back. In the rear center of the room, several feet back of the desks, was the old coal stove with its long stovepipe extending nearly up to the ceiling and then turning ninety degrees towards the chimney in the front of the room. Guy wires were used to hold up the chimney. Soot collecting in it would make it heavy. Once in awhile one of those wires would get loose and allow the stovepipe to fall. That would be a real mess! Fortunately, most of the time someone would notice the pipe bending and warn the teacher before it fell. She would notify the school board members to send one of the kid's dads to come to fix it. In the wintertime, we had to watch the stove to keep it from overheating. If it got too hot, the teacher would have to move the kids away from it. Usually there were some empty desks nearer to the front where they could sit until the danger was past.
The desks, a combination seat and desk arrangement, were always screwed to the floor. Each seat was attached to a desk part behind it. In other words, if I wiggled around in my seat, I shook the desk of the kid behind me. The desk top could be raised, leaving a place below to store books, paper, pens and pencils. Since this was long before ball- point pens, we used pens that had to be dipped into ink. The inkwell was fitted into a hole in the upper right corner of the desk top. Of course, that wasn't very convenient for left-handed kids. The inkwell itself was a small iron pot with a lid. One of us kids would be responsible to keep the inkwells filled in the older pupils' desks. It was a really messy job to clean an inkwell in which the ink had dried. The pens had metal split points fitted into a wooden handle. Of course, the pen points became scratchy quickly and had to be replaced with new ones. I am reminded of the quills that our forefathers used to sign important documents. They must have been worse than our pens. To the stars with difficulty, I say! Incidentally, that was the Kansas motto, but could well apply to other states, especially the first thirteen colonies.
One period a day was set aside for writing class. "Do you see that strip of paper on the top of the blackboard with all of the numbers and letters on it?" the teacher would ask. "That is the way your numbers and letters should look."
We always had to start by doing exercises, such as making big over- lapping "O's" all across the page. We were to use a whole-arm movement as we wrote or did the exercises. I never did well at all on my writing assignments. I remember one day, probably in the first or second grade, that after the teacher explained the lesson and I had started to follow her instructions, I got very tired.
"Now how am I going to get out of this mess?" I wondered. "I know what I'll do. I'll just fill all of those lines with "squiggles" and fold the paper and turn it in."
Why I thought I could get away with such a job, I'll never know. Very soon Miss Carroll was by my side. She didn't scold me harshly, but I found out in a hurry that "squiggles" and a few "X's" didn't impress her in the least.
"Try it again, Glenn. I know you can do better than this," she said, trying not to show her disgust.
The teacher's personal desk was always in front of the room facing the children. The recitation bench was directly in front of the rows of desks. Each class would be called up in turn to "recite" the lessons for the day. In other words, each kid had to "face the music," and judging by the way some of them squirmed on the recitation bench, the bench could be referred to as the "hot seat."
The teacher also had the job of keeping order in the rest of the room
while one class was reciting, and that wasn't always easy. There would
be note passing and whispering from time to time. If you wanted to talk
or leave your desk, you were supposed to raise your hand and get the teacher's
permission. Of course, some kids caused more trouble than others. I remember
one boy who was always breaking the rules. He wouldn't sit still and was
constantly looking all around, giggling and attracting attention. Incidentally,
he was also known for doing other "naughty things." One day on the patio
I even saw him exposing himself to one of the little Amish girls. I was
sure he was going to get in trouble for doing it, but he didn't. All the
girl did was giggle and rush into the school room. That left him with me
as his only audience, and, of course, I didn't tell on him.
Periodically the kids in the upper grades would have ciphering matches. Although I never did care for arithmetic, I always enjoyed watching the other kids during these matches. I wasn't so interested in the numbers and the answers. It was the way the kids acted during these matches that made them worth watching. While they were at the blackboard, the teacher had probably given the rest of us assignments to do. However, I probably didn't get mine done on time because it was too much fun to watch how the various kids attacked the problems on the blackboard.
"Put your books away and find a place at the blackboard," the teacher would say.
"Now are you ready?" she'd asked. "First we'll do addition. I'll call out some numbers, you write them on the blackboard and when I give the signal, add them."
Naturally, everyone at the board was trying to finish first, and that was when the fun started. Some of the kids added silently, some aloud, and some used their fingers. The most interesting kids were those who used the hunt-and-peck technique. That meant counting aloud and pounding the chalk on the board at the same time. It was hilarious! For each number they would pound the board with the chalk. That's right, a number five had five whacks on the board. The faster they pounded the harder they whacked that board. They'd break their chalk into small pieces from the exercise. By the time they had finished, put what chalk was left in the blackboard tray, and turned around, they were exhausted.
Of course, the amount of dancing and prancing that they did didn't necessarily
mean they had won. Getting done first was important, of course, but that
counted for nothing if the answer was wrong. I was always impressed with
the kids that got the correct answers quietly and beat the chalk-pounders!
Close-up of just Helen and Me (taken on that same day)
"Why in the world do you eat your pie first?" I asked.
"Easy, the pie is on the top of my lunch. What am I going to do with it while eating the rest of the stuff?"
"Why eat it upside down?"
"Try it sometime. It's easier to hold that way."
I really couldn't answer such an argument so I let it go at that. I
still ate my pie my way.
The windows of the school were on the east and west sides, thus providing the best light during the day. Since there were no electric lights, this was important. There were four windows on each side of the room. They were each seven to eight feet high and approximately four feet wide. The bottoms of the windows were about three feet from the floor. I thought that was a gyp because I could never see out when seated. I suppose the builders thought it was better that way. At least the teacher didn't have to keep worrying about us kids staring out the windows all the time. After all, we were supposed to be studying, writing, coloring, drawing or whatever else the teacher asked us to do to fill the school day.
Those window curtains were a marvel. There were two roller curtains attached to a board the width of the window. With cords attached to them, one roller curtain could be pulled up to the top of the window and the other one could be pulled down to the bottom of the window. Now here comes the crazy part of the arrangement. The whole curtain assembly was held up by a very long sash cord attached to the center of the board and threaded through a pulley at the top of the window frame. The pulley was equipped with a locking mechanism so the board could be stopped in the desired position.
Light control was the thing those days and, believe me, we had it. Of
course, the light was nature's light. No fancy electrical fixtures. Not
only could each roller curtain be controlled, one pulled up and the other
pulled down, the placement of the board which held the roller curtains
could also be controlled. If those cords got twisted or tangled, it was
a real messy job to straighten them. It always seemed to me that to figure
exactly how far to pull each curtain and where to have the board placed
for proper lighting was a job worthy of a real expert engineer. And watch
out if a cord would break and allow the whole apparatus to fall!
"Mom, my eyes hurt. Not only that, I can't see what's on the blackboard very well. The harder I try, the more my eyes ache."
"Perhaps we should go see Dr. Scales and have your eyes checked. You may need to wear glasses."
That conversation with mom got me to thinking. Wouldn't it be fun to wear glasses? They'd make me look smart! As I look back at the situation now, I realize I was more interested in how the glasses would look than how well they would help my sight.
When Dr. Scales tested my eyes, he agreed that I had a problem.
"Young man, you have what is known as astigmatism. You were born with it and will always have it. You need glasses to correct your problem."
"Would you please explain astigmatism to Glenn, Dr. Scales?" Mom asked.
"The eyeball has to be shaped properly or the light rays passing through the pupil of the eye won't be focused properly. Many people have the problem. Fortunately, it can be corrected with the right lens. Let me get a few more measurements and in a few days I'll have a pair of glasses that will let you see. What kind of frame would you like?"
Mom got into the act then. "If he is going to wear glasses, get him a pair with strong frames so they won't break easily."
Good idea, I figured. "Look, that brown plastic frame over there is just what I'd like. Could I have a pair like that?"
In a few days we went back to town and my glasses were ready.
"Glenn," Dr. Scales said, "remember these glasses are made of glass and plastic. You must be very careful with them. You must not play rough on the playground. OK?"
I was excited about wearing my new glasses to school to show all the kids. Unlike some kids with new glasses, I thought they improved my looks. However, as luck would have it, I fell down and broke those new glasses within two days after putting them on. I also had a bad bump on the bridge of my nose as a result.
Obviously, I was without my new glasses for a few days and I was disappointed. From then on, I was more careful. I became more and more dependent upon my glasses. How many pair I have broken through the years, I don't know. What I do know is that I have had to wear them the rest of my life. After having cataract operations on both eyes, my astigmatism is much improved, but not completely gone. I've always been thankful for the eye doctors who were able to help me.
I need to admit another thing about wearing glasses. When some activity
came along that I would just as soon not engage in, I could always use
my glasses as an excuse. I could always say, "I can't play that game because
I might break my glasses." Even in high school, my glasses were a good
excuse for not playing football. It was a game I always considered too
rough and I had no desire to play.
Near our school and church there was still a small piece of native grass with buffalo wallows. It was a great place to play during recess and before school, whether it was green, dry, or covered with snow.
One of the games I created to play on the grass was "dog sled." Where we got that old wooden sled and a ten foot length of rope, who knows, but I soon found that I could muster the other boys to pull the sled with me on it. What fun! The sled would slip nicely on the grass.
"OK," I would yell to my team. "Pull!"
The team would respond and I was thrilled.
"Hit the wallow with the sled. Pull hard guys!"
Riding on that sled as it hit the buffalo wallow added to my fun. It became a great challenge to stay on the sled. Moreover, I felt good about the game because I was in control of everything.
One day when I was having a great time bossing the team, the teacher wandered out to see what was going on. She didn't say anything at the time and I assumed that she was proud of my ability to organize such an event. Later, she called me aside privately and explained that the other boys were complaining that I was taking advantage of them. They wanted to ride the sled and let me do some of the pulling.
"I know you like to be in charge, Glenn, but the other boys resent your being the boss all the time. Remember, we must learn to share the sled and the responsibility of being the leader with the other boys."
Good grief! I had created that new game and I just knew that none of the other guys would know what to do. I had to admit, however, that I had been ordering them around quite heavily. I got the point. That was the end of that "bossing of the sled team" part of my life.
Later in working days, I always arranged to put myself into leadership roles. Even to this day, I have the urge to boss someone around. My wife can attest to that point.
Roger's Thumb Tacks
Before I leave the story of Elmer Grade School, I must relate one vivid memory of a fun time there. This occurred on Sunday. Our church was close to the school. On Sundays the school would be the object of "raids" if we kids had half a chance while the grown-ups were having some type of meeting and not watching us too closely.
This particular Sunday while the adults were busy with an after- church meeting, we boys made a mad rush for the school. The door was unlocked so getting in was easy. If it had been locked, it wouldn't have been much of a problem. We would have checked each window in hopes of finding an unlocked one, and usually we would be in luck.
Upon entering the school, the first thing to do was to write on the blackboards. That kind of graffiti was usually such things as lines, circles, x`s, JR loves MT, and caricatures of teachers. It was rather harmless compared to that of later years. The students' and teacher's desks were also fun items to explore. Roger, the biggest kid of the group, found thumb tacks in the teacher's desk drawer. He thought it would be a super idea to put a number of those tacks on the teacher`s seat, hoping that Monday morning they would give her a surprise.
After awhile, Roger left the teacher's desk to take part in some other activities in which the other boys were involved. Usually such activities involved sitting double in the seats, standing on the recitation bench, or adding to the blackboard scribbles. Everyone was having a good time and feeling good at having found it so easy to get into the school.
Some minutes later Roger decided that the boys needed order out of that bedlam. So, taking matters in his own hands, he jumped up from his desk, rushed to the front of the class, and poised himself behind the teacher's desk. With hands upraised and the gusto of a western cowboy herding a thousand rushing steers, Roger said, "OK! All you guys, sit down. Now!"
He lowered his hands to the desk with a bang and sat down in the teacher's seat. Of course, he came into contact with the waiting thumb tacks. He had fallen into the booby trap planned for the teacher.
Roger was a big boy for his age and it usually took him slightly longer from "sitting down" to "getting up," but not this time!
"Oooooooouuuch!" he said.
If there was ever a time in Roger's life that he was completely coordinated, it was then. Everything went up at the same time. In fact, his entire body moved up as if he were on a spring board. Soon he felt intense pain below, and he discovered that the thumb tacks had found their way into his flesh.
"Whoooooooooopee!" he responded with the same roar as before.
Thumb tacks were longer in those days. Roger found himself pulling each tack out quite carefully.
The boys roared in glee. Roger had really gotten "the point" this time!
Facts of Life
When I was a little kid, learning about the "the birds and the bees," in other words, sex, was rather difficult for me. Since the subject was never discussed at home or in the classroom, I had to learn about it in a round-about way. The boys at my school and in the community always seemed to be eager to contribute to my library of ignorance on the subject. I was an eager learner from the boys, and exceptionally creative in my thinking about such matters. I am positive about that!
Of course, observing farm animals was certainly a good way to learn about "the facts of life," and I had lots of opportunity to do just that. I often wondered how city kids learned about the "birds and the bees" in those days. I suppose there were "wise" guys just as at my school who were the educators.
Nudity was certainly not common then. Movies were very modest and there was no television. Nudist colonies and nude beaches were unheard- of, at least in my part of the country. I didn't win any favors with my mother one day when she found Ted and me in the nude scooping newly threshed wheat from the truck into the bin. Wheat dust was itchy and it got into our shoes and throughout our clothes creating a problem. We hit upon the idea of doing away with all our clothes. Boy was that great! At least for a while until mom caught us. Needless to say she was shocked and let us know in no uncertain terms that the "nudist" way was certainly not proper, in fact, was close to being sinful.
I am convinced that I got my sex education the wrong way as most of the other kids around me did. It seems that all the other boys knew much more about "things" than I did and I always stood in awe of their knowledge. As simple as the birds and the bees syndrome seemed to be, the application escaped me. After all, I had the pigs, cows and chickens to watch and ponder as they contributed to my knowledge of life. Even with all this help, visual aids of the highest order, I still had problems applying the concepts I heard and witnessed.
I was slightly jolted into realizing that grown men had "big things" and were something akin to the male animals on the farm. I didn't know the word "penis" until it came into my vocabulary much later as I began to utilize the dictionary to find out what was going on.
I had quite a shock one Sunday afternoon when I passed by the hired man's upstairs bedroom door and saw him peacefully sleeping in the nude. Since our house wasn't the coolest place to be in the heat of summer, sleeping in the nude was one way to help keep cool. He was apparently in a state of great ecstasy because his glands were working overtime. So there he lay in all his manly form. Believe me, I had never seen anything like that!
Startled, I quickly ran downstairs and pondered my experience. When I grew up, would my "thing" be like that? Did all men, my dad, our neighbors and friends, and even the preacher have such big ones? Finally, with my superior creative and imaginative mind, I was able to conclude that, yes, all men had a "thing" and it was sometimes bigger than at other times.
Women? Well, if you can understand how I managed to learn about men, you can readily understand that it took considerably longer to learn about women.
Chickens and birds puzzled me most. Just how did that work? I never found a penis on the roosters, and that was a mystery to me.
There were always stray dogs around, and often one or two males would be chasing a lone female. I was surprised by a dog scene one day as Dad and I were driving along in the model-T Ford. A tug-of-war was taking place between two dogs--a big one and a little one. The smaller was being dragged down the road by the larger, butt to butt. Both dogs were yelping all the way. Dad didn't bother to explain such an unusual scene. I was confused. My thoughts went something like this:
"Now, let me see. What fastened those two dogs together in that manner? Who in the world would want to tie them together like that? Must have been some ornery kids."
"But wait! Two female dogs wouldn't have anything to tie. Maybe it was two males with their bags or "things" tied together. If that was the case, those danged kids ought to be spanked."
"Oops! Fat chance of any boys holding two dogs in that position in order to tie them."
So went my thoughts. The last I saw of those dogs, the big one maintained control of the situation and was making tracks in his own direction with the little one going right along, in reverse, continuing to yelp in pain.
Sometime later I did discover the answer to the dog situation. I learned that mating dogs often remain locked together for some time.
Of course, the mating of our bull with the dairy cows became my best
teacher about where babies "come from." There will be more about our bull
Burk and his value to Dad's dairy herd later.
Mom decided I was to play the piano at a very early age. One day when I was six or seven, I was informed that the family had purchased a piano. It was an upright Kimball and cost only $100. Of course, that was lots of money in those days. At first all three of us kids took lessons from Aunt Myrtle. However, after my sister Helen died at age 11, and Junior refused to continue his lessons, I was the only one left. I took lessons until I started to Junior High School.
At Aunt Myrtle's on Piano Lesson Day
"Play this ten times everyday," my aunt would say, "and mark it down right here every time you play it."
Then she would warn me, "If you make an error, you must start again!"
Mother listened to Aunt Myrtle's instructions, and although she was nearly tone-deaf, she made certain that I did my practice. She would sit next to me on the piano bench and peel potatoes or snap beans and when I had completed playing a number, she would mark Aunt Myrtle's tally sheet.
I must admit that I wasn't always honest. As soon as I discovered how much she didn't know about music, I would cheat from time to time. It was easier to cheat than to pout. I learned that pouting got me absolutely nowhere.
After putting on a full-fledged pout, complete with tears and a runny nose, I was surprised to get both tears and snot rubbed all over my face one day. That was when I decided it was easier to go along with the practice gag.
Mom certainly did her part to help me learn to play the piano. In the winter when the front parlor wasn't heated, the piano was moved into the main sitting room so I wouldn't miss my practice time.
I became quite proficient at playing and soon learned that I could play
tunes by ear. I also composed tunes of my own. By the time I was in the
6th or 7th grade, I was playing selected hymns for church and Sunday school.
Hymns in the key of "C" were the first I played, such as "Bringing in the
Sheaves" and "Calling Today." This proved to be a great attention-getter
and considerable fun at the same time. Since only a few boys of my acquaintance
played the piano, at first it was rather difficult to shake the "sissy"
role. However, the attention I received soon over-shadowed any initial
embarrassment I felt about being a boy pianist.
The Yaggy Contest
I well remember my first piano contest. I played "Apple Blossoms." I can still remember how it went and can probably play most of it even today.
The contest was at Yaggy School, northwest of Hutchinson. A number of schools joined together for contests in several categories, including athletic events, recitations, and musical events.
There were only two piano contestants. We played and I got second place. Second place, not last place! My pride wouldn't let me admit that I had last place. It sounded much better to say, "I got second place!"
I thought it was all over and forgotten about until about two or three weeks later. I was notified that someone had contested the results of the piano awards, saying I should have won. We were to play again to see who really was the best. Now that was the last thing I wanted to do. I wasn't interested in more practice. In fact, I hadn't continued to practice "Apple Blossoms" at all. Needless to say, I was wholly unprepared for the unfortunate event.
The day arrived and we drove to still another school to "battle" it out. The only people there beside me, were the other contestant, a "sweet little girl," our mothers, our teachers and the judges. I never felt so stupid in my life. I had crammed for the first go-around, but had forgotten some of my piece by this time.
The other contestant, I am sure, spent more hours getting ready for the "slaughter" at Excelsior School than I did.
She played first. She did well, I thought. Anyway, she started and finished. And, so did I, but! The strains of the opening phrases of "Apple Blossoms," rang out in tones of excellence and all seemed to go well until, all of a sudden, I began to think.
"What will happen if I forget part of it?" What a frightening thought!
To protect myself from such a catastrophe, I began to watch my fingers very carefully. So carefully, in fact, that I began to see other things, such as, Rover romping around with me and playing with my wagon. Something inside my head began to take over my reflexes and it seemed that there was no connection between my head and finger tips. My fingers became as useless stubs on my hands. Whenever my hands went down on the keyboard, my fingers didn't know what to play. What came out could hardly be called music. My hands played all kinds of notes. Certainly not notes that the writer of "Apple Blossoms" had written. I am sure he was chuckling if he was listening to me play.
Anyway, the sounds that arose from my piano were terrible. Frankly, I was screwing the whole thing up royally! I was glad that I couldn't see the faces of the judges. Mother, on the other hand, probably didn't know the difference, bless her heart.
Soon my head began to clear and I had fingers again to use and they found more reasonable phrases to play. I began to play with a passion and soon finished the piece. Of course, the other contestant was declared the winner again.
I knew I had placed "last" this time, not second. I was sure about that! The only thing that was in my mind was to get out of that place and go home.
I haven't played a piano solo since that didn't give me the "willies."
At college, and even later, when I had to play, I would remember the Excelsior
My Grand Piano
While I was in college, I convinced Mom and Dad that I needed a grand piano. The Wiley's music department salesman persuaded us that we could afford one. As a result, poor Mom and Dad succumbed! I figured I could pay for it when I started to teach. So we traded in our old Kimball upright for a little "butterfly" piano. It was soon apparent to me that this was not the kind of piano I wanted. We went back to Wiley's and decided to take the big step and change it for a regular grand piano. We chose a Hardman grand and I loved it.
When we moved the upright from that old elevator storage room in Hanston down the steps into our basement, we were very careful not to damage it. However, when the movers came to bring it out, they simply tied a rope around it and pulled it from the basement. I was insulted the way they did it.
"Look out! You're damaging my piano," I said.
"Remember, it's not your piano anymore. Don't worry about the scratches. When we get it back to Wiley's, they plan to cut it down and make a spinet-type piano from it anyway."
I'm happy to say that they were very careful as they moved my new grand down into the basement. In fact, they made it look easy. However, when we were ready to move back to the old farm, we soon found that taking it out again wasn't so easy. As there was no money to hire professional movers, we had to do the job ourselves. It was hard work, but we got the job done and didn't make even the tiniest mark on my precious grand.
When I got a teaching job in Zook, Kansas, I took the piano with me. The students were very careful as they helped move the piano from Hutchinson to Zook. So far as I know, no one put a scratch on it during its stay there. However, with only a $65 a month salary, I found it hard to pay even $10 a month on my bill at Wiley's. That amount didn't go far in wiping out the $1400 debt I had incurred by purchasing a Hardman grand. To top it all off, World War II started after I had taught only one and one-half years. When I enlisted, they told me to forget about the payments until the war was over. We carefully moved the piano back home and there it sat waiting for me.
I got married ten days after my return from overseas. We moved the piano to the church for the wedding. Since we spent our first year in a tiny rented house in Hutchinson, my piano had to go back to the farm after the ceremony and I had to go there to play my precious grand. When we bought our first little home in South Hutchinson, we moved the piano there for three months until I was off to graduate school at the University of Kansas. Again it traveled back to the farm home. I used Aunt Myrtle's old piano during the two years at the University of Kansas. During the two years I taught at Jetmore, Kansas, my grand was kept in the school gym. Unfortunately, while there it acquired one nick, but considering its environment those two years, it really fared well. When we first moved to California, we lived in a trailer, so the piano went back to the farm. After two years, we bought a home and were very happy to move it to Culver City. Of course, after four years it came with us to our second home in Culver City . There it stayed for thirteen years until I took a government job in the Washington, D. C., area. Thinking the job might be temporary, we took the piano to the home of our friends, Bill and Mary Blume, in Redlands. After awhile, we had it shipped to our College Park, Maryland, home. Naturally it went with us when we bought our second Maryland home in Seabrook. When I retired, our thoughts returned to Culver City. Since our home there had been rented, the decision to return to Culver City was easy. So, finally, my piano came back to its same old place, and there it remains to this day. Where it's next move will be is anyone's guess.
I am now in my 70's and although I can't play as well as I used to, I can still do a fair job. All of my children, Glenda, Jean and Gregory started their musical education on that grand piano.
Jean is now an accomplished pianist and owns her owns "larger" Yamaha grand. She has Aunt Myrtle's upright piano and rents it out. She says she will never sell it as she hopes that one of her children, Jackie or Jeff, will need it some day.
I should confess that I finished paying for the grand after the war. Many times I found myself being ashamed that I got my parents into such a difficult financial situation at such a time. Frankly, I didn't really need a grand piano. However, I am sure that I gave them much pleasure with my playing and singing over the years, and the grand piano contributed.
My Well-Traveled Grand Piano
Self-taught Piano Tuner
I was always tinkering with the various parts of our piano. Even when I got my Hardman grand, I couldn't keep my hands off it. The action, that is, the mechanism of the piano that causes the little hammers to strike the keys, was always exciting to me. The tune of a piano won't ring true forever, and when I noticed a key out of tune, I always felt something had to be done. Consequently, I got a set of tuning tools and did something about it. Even if there was a professional tuner around, most of the time it was hard to find the money to hire one.
By experimenting with my tools, I soon discovered the basic principles involved in producing tones on a piano. I learned that there are three distinct sets of wires. The base notes are produced by the largest size wires, the lowest notes having only one and the remaining having two. The middle and upper notes all require three wires. Single wires are easily tuned. Tuning two wires exactly together is more difficult. If the job isn't done correctly, the tone produced is very discordant. Getting three wires in tune is even more of a challenge, and the higher the notes on the keyboard, the harder they are to tune. The job of tuning a piano proved not quite as easy as I thought. After all there are 88 notes to tune. Most stringed instruments of the orchestra have only four strings to tune. I have never even tried to figure out how many strings on the piano must be just right before it will play decently.
My Kimball upright piano at home gave me a great opportunity to fiddle around with tuning techniques. I even got a few dollars tuning pianos around the area. One of my first jobs was to tune the church piano at the old Elmer Church. It was in a terrible condition. My professional piano tuning experience was nil, but I had a good ear. Since the church had little money to pay for a professional tuner, I decided to do what I could. So long as I didn't meddle with the total string arrangement, I got along fine. Unfortunately, one time I tried to do a complete job of raising the pitch of the entire set of strings. I finally had to give up and let a real tuner do the job. When people would ask me to help them with their piano problems, I would tell them that I would do what I could and that was that.
When I got my Hardman grand piano, I was even more sensitive about the
tuning. I expected so much from my new piano that the slightest change
in one of those sets of wires would drive me crazy. To this day, I am still
very sensitive about the sounds that the piano emits. Professional tuning,
of course, is what it takes to satisfy me. In recent years some of the
wires on my Hardman have been replaced and now it holds its tune much longer.
Jean, my second daughter, has perfect pitch. I have a kind of relative pitch. It doesn't bother me too much when directing or listening to a choir if the pitch gets lowered, so long as all are doing the same thing. I remember one time when my choir's pitch had dropped nearly two steps, but I hadn't been too bothered. On the other hand, when Jean is watching the music and such a thing happens, it drives her nuts. It's also hard for her to sing in a different key from the music she is watching. Perfect pitch has some advantages, but I am perfectly happy with my relative pitch. It has served me well.
I have always been sorry that we got rid of our Kimball piano. It was a fine instrument. It had a quality of sound that I have seldom heard duplicated. The position of the sounding board on a piano makes lots of difference. An upright, like my old Kimball, as one might suppose, had the sounding board in a vertical position. As you play on it, the sounds hit you right in your ears. My Hardman grand, of course, has a horizontal board and the sounds are somewhat covered by the lid. Consequently, I like to use the piano with the lid wide open.
Music, especially playing the piano, did many things for me. I developed
a sense of hearing, sight reading and a kind of discipline for doing things
right. Playing the piano also gave me dexterity with my fingers that served
me well in becoming a fine typist. Most of all, my music was the road to
college scholarship at Bethel College. Much credit goes to my parents for
furnishing the piano, my mother for making me practice, and Aunt Myrtle
for giving me free lessons.
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