“She looks like Old Lady Greely’s goat—even got the beard and yellow eyes.” Melonhead offered his description of the teacher I’d be seeing for the first time in less than an hour. Today was the beginning of another school year, actually the beginning of the entire year for kids. For the adults the calendar changed on January 1st, for us, it was the first day of school.
“You don’t know that.” I made the bold assertion then ducked Melonhead’s round-house. Melonhead was a burly boy with a stout body that supported the source of his nickname, but he was getting entirely too predictable with his responses, an observation Mickey had made the previous week when I had slipped quickly away from the headlock Melon would have clamped on me had I not expected it.
“I seen her this summer, in June when we was in Medora.” He had the hide of a rhinoceros and was persistent in furthering his assertions, many which were notably false. On the other hand, he had been in Medora. I knew that because I tended to his calico cat, Mel, while his family was on vacation. And my mother had mentioned that Miss Martin was moving from the cattle country ‘out West.’ That was the problem assessing the accuracy of any of Melonhead’s stories. There was always a taste of the truth he rolled up in his bologna sandwiches.
“We was walking past the school and out she flies, down the boardwalk. She’s so mean and ugly, the dogs ran and hid under the wagons and they was mean and ugly dogs.” His arms flew as he expanded the exposition that had the potential to instill such fear in me that I would crawl back home and lock myself in the upstairs closet until my parents promised to move across the river to Bismarck where there would be a new school and no Miss Martin. For that matter, perhaps I could transfer to the Reform School. After all, the Old Man had promised the Reformatory, just down the road a piece, would always have a room for me. I wondered if there was a small room, with a cot and bars on the windows, which had a name plate reading ‘Larry’ or maybe ‘Moose’ outside the grey steel door.
“…and then they had tied their horses to the hitching post in front of the saloon and when she walked past, the horses reared back and pulled the post out of the ground. My cousin says one died of fright and the other three are still running upright on two hind legs.
”The first day of school was full of excitement and apprehension. Full of fears but not the kind you get on the back of a rank cayuse. It was more the fear of the unknown and the fear of the inability to point your steed towards your own destiny, down your chosen dusty trail. And at least according to Melonhead, I was headed for a wreck.
I fell behind Mike, Willie, Sherry, and Melonhead. Mickey and I shuffled along, he in his Keds and me in the cowboy boots that three days ago, I had been so proud of. Brown and white with stitching of horses etched on the tops. Today they felt wooden. The heel of the boot would hit the ground long before the toe would catch up and strike with a slap. I felt clumsy and conspicuous – a boy with the kind of reckless bravado Miss Martin would surely seek to temper. Three days ago, my mother took my brother, Mike, and me shopping at F. W. Woolworth’s. Mike had strayed off in search of a multi-zippered, blackleather jacket he would never be allowed to own. Being the youngest, I had to have my mother’s guidance in wardrobe matters. She made a bee line past the slims, the regulars, straight to the husky jeans. She held them up – they would have been large enough for Uncle Herman to keep a pig in his pants. The annual shopping spree was the onset of my personal struggle of the New Year. In the first grade, it didn’t matter. I could have worn the sheet off my bed and a pillow case for a hat and no one would have cared. But now it was important to be cool—not dashing, but at least cool. Hard to even fake cool in your huskies, especially with the billboard size brand tag on the back announcing ‘HUSKY’ to any kid who hadn’t noticed.
So here I was clomping and clapping down the cracked and heaved sidewalk wearing my husky jeans and a plaid shirt with metal buttons and the short sleeves rolled up. A couple of dozen paces ahead was Mike, with his two-tone bowling shirt, slim jeans rolled at the cuffs, loafers with shiny pennies on the top, and the beginning of a duck-tail, a fashion I had no use for since it seemed to hold the potential for yet another nickname or proclaim me to be the hoodlum I had no desire of becoming.
The janitor, Mr. Bernard whose name had morphed into Barnyard, blocked the school entrance. No one entered until the appointed time of 8:45. Children could have been minutes from freezing to death or inches from being snatched by a twister, but if it was 8:44, there was no access to the salvation on the other side of those doors. Mr. Barnyard, who was often called Senior, to distinguish him from his son who was also a custodian, knew it was time when the bell rang. He begrudgingly opened the door, as if it pained his soul to allow the careless urchins on the waxed floors he’d spent the summer polishing to a gleam with his new electric buffer. He couldn’t have been more inhospitable than if Ringling Brothers had backed up the entire circus for unloading in his school. My new boots made hollow hoof-beat sounds that echoed even as Mickey and I made our way up the stairs to the second floor. We were moving up in the world. A couple more years and we’d be on the third floor. Up there as sixth graders—the kings and queens of the castle until the seventh grade when we’d move back down the pyramid into peasantry while the high schoolers would hold dominion…I was beginning to wonder if this was a cycle without an ending before death.