In my last post from”It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Me,” I received a one year reprieve from attending the first grade under Mrs. Young’s ever watchful eye. In this post, my unending vacation ends. I trudge off to school, get spanked, make new friends and have a close encounter with a train.
I turned six on March 3, 1949. My endless vacation came to an end that fall. It was time for the first grade. Mother was delighted. Mrs. Young— not so much. A number of the little boxes on my report card that reflected good behavior were marked ‘needs improvement.’ Mrs. Young had decided I needed a lot. Is neat— needs improvement; Shares— needs improvement; Is Polite— needs improvement. The list went on…
I even got spanked. “Reading and writing and ‘rithmetic taught to the tune of a hickory stick” the old song School Days proclaimed. My classmate Joe and I had disagreed over who was top dog. We fought it out on the playground. I thought I was doing Mrs. Young a favor by clarifying the issue. Joe was even more uncivilized than I. She thought otherwise. The only justice I could see was that Joe got it in the end as well, so to speak.
First Grade was not the highlight of my school years, to say the least. Things had to get better and did. My second-grade teacher turned out to be my God-mother. There was a commandment issued on a mountain and written in stone: She had to like me. But back to first grade.
The high point of my year was that I made my first two friends who weren’t family or buddies of my older brother. Rudy and Robert were a pair of Hispanic brothers who lived in a small house out in east Diamond. We had hit it off immediately and on a Saturday toward the end of school, the boys and their parents invited me up to their house to spend the night. It was my first official play date and my first ever sleep-over. I was nervous. My mother took me up and dropped me off to a royal greeting by the boys, their parents and their siblings.
“Quick,” the boys urged, “we have to go stand by the railroad tracks.” We could hear the train’s whistle as it approached Diamond.
The tracks were part of a narrow-gauge railway Caldor Lumber Company used to bring logs from its tree-cutting operation 20 miles up in the El Dorado National Forest to its lumber mill in Diamond Springs. The company had been established in the early 1900s and, at first, used mules for hauling the logs. It had then switched to oxen followed by a giant steam tractor. The tractor made so much noise that the company was required to use outriders a quarter of a mile in front to warn people so their horses wouldn’t be spooked.
Understandably, the company switched to the narrow-gauge railway. It, in turn, would lose out to logging trucks in the 50s. But for the time being, little kids still had the joy of watching the massive engines and their long line of rail cars carrying large logs out of the forest.
My father had a close connection with the railway. The train engines had recently been converted to diesel from steam and he had overseen the project as one of Caldor’s two electricians. He was also responsible for maintaining phone service between the lumber camp and the mill. When there was a problem, off he went to check out the 20 miles of line. A hand cranked generator was necessary for creating the electricity to make calls. We inherited one when the line was updated. Marsh and I would invite our little friends over, crank up the machine, and have them touch the outlet. It was shocking.
Pop’s favorite railway task was clearing snow off the tracks each summer when the logging camp opened up for the season. “We had a diesel-powered rail car with a snow plow on it,” he explained to me later. “We’d back up and take a run at snow banks, crashing into them, and hopefully breaking through. Often our car would jump the tracks. We’d all pile out and lift it back on.” Some fun; he loved it.
While watching the train was high entertainment, the primary attraction for us was that the engineers carried an ample supply of hard candy that they would throw out to the boys and girls standing along the track. It was almost a tradition.
The train was near; we could hear it chugging along. Rudy, Robert, their brother, sisters and I sprinted the hundred or so yards over to the tracks. I laid down and put my ear one of the rails. It was a trick I had learned from the Lone Ranger and his side-kick, Tonto. You can actually hear the vibrations and supposedly judge how far away the train is. I needn’t have bothered since the train came into view when my head was still on the track. I’m sure the engineers saw me. “Get off the track!” Rudy and Robert screamed. We started waving vigorously. One of the engineers dutifully leaned out of the cab and tossed us candy, lots of it. We scrambled around picking it up and shoving it in our pockets, at least the ones that weren’t shoved into out mouths…
Next Monday I’ll continue this adventure as I teach the boys how to ‘ride’ pine trees and they teach me how to eat Habanero peppers. I find myself sharing the bed, a first for me. I don’t move. I don’t sleep. At 5 AM I hit the road on my first solo hike ever.
Blog-A-Book Wednesday… “The Bush Devil Ate Sam” : I get a job driving a laundry truck between Placerville and Lake Tahoe. And then end up working for a laundry at the Lake. The upside is I pay for my college education, enjoy beautiful scenery, and get to meet stars. The down side is that I end up on the wrong end of rifle.
Friday’s Travel Blog: It’s all about star fish. Did you know they can send their stomach out of their mouths to eat?