Chapter 10

High School Days

Ogdensburg Free Academy

That Fall I went to Ogdensburg Free Academy.  In grammar school we went to different classes for different subjects, so high school was not that much different for me.  Due to the time I had lost during my bout with pleurisy and pneumonia, my marks had come down somewhat.  So I was given a shop course instead of a regents course.  The courses of study were not that much different except that I had no foreign language, Chemistry, or Biology.  I did, however, have what was called Science, ably taught by a teacher named Donald Beamon, who made the subject very interesting. 

The shop course was mostly in carpentry and handicrafts, taught by Jack Adams and his brother-in-law, a Mr. Shepard.  This course included blueprint reading.  We also had a print shop, and a weekly paper was printed which I found very interesting.  I believe the type was set in the school while the photographic plates were made at the Republican Journal.  The first year was not too interesting, except for my English class, where I again came into contact with my old friend, “Prose and Poetry”.

 Athletics

My lack of interest in sports caused me some trouble with the athletic director, Mr. Fred Kleemier.  My total disinterest came to his attention very early, and he persisted in pronouncing my name as Coma, to earn a laugh at my expense.  I obstinately refused to answer to any name buy my own.  After screaming his head off with no response from me, he was finally forced to address me correctly, at which point I would answer.  My refusal to be the butt of his somewhat course wit caused him to dislike me intensely, and earned him my undying hatred.  I realized my own limitations, and I was not particularly depressed when, in choosing up sides for a baseball or football game, I was always the last one chosen by either side.  I earnestly believe that if an amiable beagle hound had wandered across the campus and stood in line, I would still have been the last one chosen.

The only thing athletic that stood to my credit was a decision of the school to have an exhibition of the gymnastics of the sophomores for the parents.  The show was supposed to close with a pyramid and at the ends of the pyramid Kleemier wanted two boys to stand on their heads.  My grandfather had taught me this trick many years before, but unfortunately I was the only boy who could do it.  Rather than have this pyramid unbalanced, it was decided to dispense with my services.  I must admit that when I found out that finally I was able to do something that no one else could do, it occurred to me that Mr. Kleemier might have placed me before this pyramid as a solo artist, while a hysterical audience applauded wildly to such unprecedented artistry.  His refusal to include me could be put down to either a gift on my part to which he could take no credit, or else a humanitarian gesture on his part to nullify the best efforts of the other athletes by not including me.  At any rate, I felt that once again I had lost my chance at immortality.

 My Shop Project

The materials that we used in shop work were supposed to be paid for by the parents.  Since my mother was unable to pay for the materials, the results of my labors was sequestered by the school and put into a glass display case in the hall, no doubt to show visitors to the schools the results of the fantastic ability of the teachers.  It pleased me no end to observe many years later a belt buckle I had designed still on display.  Apparently the school considered my work either as an artifact too precious to part with, or, as is more likely, a work so tasteless that none would accept it, even as a gift, much less buy it.

 English Composition

I wrote a composition in English class on dinosaurs.  At that time all branches of science then were on a par with toddlers making mud pies, or the national tiddlywinks championships.  Indeed, all scientists were called crackpots and were generally depicted with large bifocals, small heads which were completely bald, and a stupid look n their faces.  So it should have come as no surprise to me that my efforts were greeted by my teacher with a  monumental lack of interest.  Many years later my oldest son also wrote a composition on this subject, and was lionized by his teacher and the principal. (O Tempora, O Mores)

 On the Home Front

As the year dragged on, there was little to relieve it except for a growing antipathy between my sister Margaret and myself.  As she was the oldest girl in the family, she soon enlisted the aid of the rest of my brothers and sisters, and I was always outnumbered.  She had a favorite trick.  Each time she would catch me with my back turned, she would give me a vicious push into the wall or whatever, and immediately scream to my mother “Earl’s started a fight and he’s going to hit me.”  My mother would immediately holler at me to leave her alone.  Although she was eighteen at the time, and much bigger than I, she never did this when my mother was not around.

Once, when my mother had bawled me out for this reason, a smaller sister stuck her tongue out at me.  So I nudge her, sorta, not very much, but she fell into a tub of water filled with dirty wash that was on the floor.  Even though she hardly screamed at all, and I fished her out in hurry, my mother immediately looked around for something to hit me with.  A length of stove wood mot being handy, she settled for the ax.  I, of course, had no idea which end she planned to use on me.  There happened to be a tree by the side of the house, and it occurred to me that the top of this tree was far more attractive than the immediate neighborhood, so with a leap for the lower branches that would have sent Tarzan slinking away in shame, I scrambled to the top, passing two frightened squirrels on the way.  My mother was at first thunderstruck at my rapid disappearance, then she burst out laughing and told me to come down. After I determined that her humor was genuine, I timidly did so.

 The Bathing Suit Incident

My sister Margaret joined the Girl Scouts about this time, and about the same time I came into possession of a pair of khaki shorts such as big game hunters, British officers or Boy Scouts wore.  I was quite proud of these shorts, and although I did not have the nerve to wear them on the street, they served very well as swimming trunks.  My sister went to camp for a couple of weeks and without consulting me, appropriated my shorts.  This was unforgivable.  But to make it even more intolerable, she slit the outer seam and inserted a tuck of red velvet in a tuck on each side, which was a fashion among girls then.  Few could afford swimming trunks then, and I was forced to tie my belt around the middle in the fond hope that any adult seeing me would imagine I had on a pair of colorless trunks.  so you can imagine the pride I took in my khaki shorts, and the endless wait until my sister returned from camp and returned them to me.  When I saw the destruction she had wrought upon my shorts with her silly inserts, my rage knew no bounds, and no amount of threats or pleading on my part could induce her to restore them to their original condition.  I, of course, was unable to do so myself.

I brooded darkly for a few days, and finally decided to extract revenge at least to the extent of the indignities which had been visited upon me.  I had tentatively decided to club her to death in her sleep, but fearing that my mother would frown upon this sort of thing, I arrived at what I considered a perfect solution.  My sister had a black wool bathing suit.  After swimming she would hang it upon the clothesline to dry out.  At that time girls bathing suits covered the body from slightly below the neck to the knees, and she had a built-in section to conceal the torso.  Awaiting an opportunity, I deftly made a slit in the crotch of her suit, expecting that ht next time she went swimming she would notice the mutilation of her suit, and I could then exult in the completion of my revenge.

Unfortunately, my sister failed to notice the tampering of her suit.  I learned that she caused a sensation at the public beach before she became aware of the intense interest of all the males gathered there in her diving and swimming ability and became curious enough to investigate the cause.  As my sister was then about eighteen years old, she had much to show, or to put it another way, much to conceal.  As usual, when my mother was informed of the situation , she tenderized several lengths of hardwood fuel across my back. At my age I was unable to understand her anger, since the sight of a naked female at that time was even more repulsive to me than a fully clothed one, or so I imagined.

 Margaret’s Boy Friends

At that time Margaret was going around with a boy whose name was Babe O’Shay.  I never heard his first name, and his appeal to her lay in his resemblance to Clark Gable, who was then the rage of the silly set.  She also went with a boy from Canton, George Pitcher, whom she married.  Apparently she preferred a first rate George Pitcher over a second rate Clark Gable.

 Gathering Coal

My father’s love of steam railroading was exceeded, possibly, only by my own.  My brother Dick and I took turns maintaining a supply of coal for our home.  After his death this responsibility fell to me alone.  The yard was a busy place then in spite of the Depression.  As I made a daily trip over to the roundhouse to fill a burlap bag full of coal I became a familiar figure to all the men in the railroad station as well as the roundhouse.  These trips were always made early in the morning, before I went to school.  I made a point of picking coal off the ground rather than off the cars.  All the men in the yard knew this and all of them were friendly to me. 

At that time William Forsyth ran the steam crane in the yard, and he was a good friend of my father’s from his railroad days.  There was a small siding next to the round house where there was a deep pit filled with water.  When a locomotive had finished its run, it was run up this siding, and the ash pit opened into the water.  After it had dumped the hot ashes, it was backed slightly toward the turntable to be refilled from another siding with a string of coal cars full of soft coal.  After the engine was recoaled, it was backed until its next run.  Mr. Forsyth was a short man with a walrus mustache and one of the best natured men I have ever known, as well as one of the most generous.  Each time I went over to pick up some coal, there was always a small pile waiting for me on the ground which he accidentally dumped. Through a lot of years, he never once forgot.

 Peterson - the railroad bull

There was a railroad detective called Peterson, and they were all afraid of him.  He arrested many people for stealing coal and trespassing on railroad property.  They called railroad detectives “railroad bulls” and many times when I would go over for my daily bag of coal, the men at the depot or roundhouse would tell me to watch myself as Peterson had just pulled in on the eight-o-clock train.  Although all were terrified of Peterson, he was always good to me.  The times he caught me, he would walk me home and tell my mother “What the hell is the matter with this kid?  Each time he sees me he never runs.  If he did I wouldn’t chase him”  I was always too proud, or something, to run from anybody, which earned me my share of bloody noses and other indignities.  Many times Mr. Peterson would stop at our house and tell my mother he had chased a couple of kids away from a sled or cart filled with a couple of bags of coal, and for me to go and get them.  Once he even went to City Hall and demanded that they send up some coal to us, and it was done.  The prevailing picture of Mr. Peterson as a vicious railroad bull was hardly the memory that I carry of him.

 Telling Time by the City Sounds

Through a great many years, we did not own a clock in our house, nor did we ever see a need for one.  At 6:00 AM the bells at Notre Dame would ring for mass.  At 7:00 the whistle at the paper mill would blow, and at 8:00 the No., 4 train would whistle before she came into the station.  At noon, 1:00 and 4:00 PM, the paper mill whistle would blow again.  The diesel coach, or “toonerville trolley” as we called it (after a comic strip of the day) would sound its air horn at a quarter of one before proceeding to DeKalb Junction.  At 5:00 PM the Shade Roller would blow a whistle, and at 6:00 the Notre Dame bells would ring again.  The night train would blow for the crossing at a quarter to eight, and the outbound would blow at eight.  There were many other trains, both passenger and frieght, but those were not the sounds that we lived by.  These whistles were so precise that we were rarely late for school.  In high school we were supposed to bring our lunches to school, but since I dearly loved to run, I would run home and eat a sandwich, and leave when the DeKalb train left.  I was never late.

 

Friends of Dad’s

I have already mentioned the busy yards in Utica.  My father had a good friend who used to visit our house at Covington Street.  His name was Dicky Quinn or Thompson.  His mother was married twice.  He was cut in two in the Utica yards by a train.

Another man, an Indian named Mike Curlyhead, had been murdered and his body placed on the tracks in Ogdensburg opposite the former Madrid Coal Company.  But his body had been placed on the wrong track, and the morning train failed to run over him, and thus conceal the crime.  Nothing was ever done about the murder. These were both friends of my father, and I remember them very well.

My father seemed to get along well with Indians, since he looked like one himself.  He had a dark complexion, with coal black hair, and he was a dead ringer for Abraham Lincoln, even to the mole on his lip and the pendulous lower lip.  As far as I know, the only picture still in existence of him, and of my grandfather, are the ones which disappeared from my wallet during the late 1960’s.

I still remember well some of the locomotive crews.  George Morris, Windy Phelps, George Tulip, Clarence Kelley, Nick Carter, Silver Stevens, and John Langstaff are a few. 

One of my father’s most noteworthy friends was Walter Edwards, a brakeman on the St. Lawrence Division.  This man was quite short.  He was a boxer in the Navy at one time, and one of the most powerful men for his size I ever knew.  He was so full of pep that he practically bounced.  At the city quarry he would dance into the blacksmith shop, do a few pushups over his head with the anvil, and go on to work.  He was utterly fearless.  One story had it that he went to the Gouveneur Fair where a high diver would leap from a high ladder into a tub of water.  Walter, drunk as usual, belittled the efforts of the star and climbed the ladder and dove off himself.  Incredibly, he came to no harm.  I can vouch for the fact that in a traveling carnival they had a boxer and a wrestler who would take on anyone and pay him a dollar a minute as long as he could stay with either one.  Walter, drunk again, went in and demolished the wrestler, and in the next show did likewise to the boxer.  Each time my father and Walter tied on a few, Walter would ask him to sing “Are You Lonesome Tonight.”  My father had a quavery and very sad voice, and usually reduced Walter to tears.  A couple more men who were also rugged and about Walter’s size were Sammy Boyer and Bennie Boulia.

 Interests

It was about this time that I became interested in religion.  An article had appeared in the he American Weekly, an insert in the Syracuse Herald, with photographs purporting to be the tomb where Christ had been buried.  I had accepted, until this time, the fact that there was a tomb, but the story of Christ, like the stories I had also read of Greek and Roman Mythology, had no reality for me.  Like most people, it was something I accepted more as an article of faith, rather than an actuality. 

I also became interested in Science Fiction at this time.  My brother Pete was an avid reader, and I acquired an even greater interest in this literature.  The two outstanding magazines of that day were Amazing Stories, and Wonder Stories.  They were large pulp magazines, about the size of Life magazine and were written by scientists for the most part.  This fiction was never surpassed later.  They were very educational, as each writer would write fiction in his own field.  In many cases, the technology they dreamed of then later became commonplace, or even surpassed the dreams of their early innovators.

The most enjoyable thing that happened to me in my second year of High School was the introduction to Ancient History.  Although I had read many stories of Norse, Greek and Roman Mythology, I had always assumed that these people themselves were mythological.  I became utterly fascinated with the he subject, with the result that I read the book several times over, and obtained additional books from the school library.  It also occurred to me that since these people actually lived, then Christ, too, must have actually lived.  I became an avid student of theology as well as of history.  My interests soon embraced anthropology, geology, and other sciences as well.  Alas, I must confess that as these ancient peoples became more real to me, the Biblical figures became less believable.  I would caution those who are happy in their religion not to inquire into it too closely.

 Pete Joins the CCCs

In the Fall my brother Pete enlisted for a six month stay in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCCs), which had just been organized by Roosevelt.  The boys in this organization were paid the fantastic sum of $30 a month, $25 of  which was sent to the family.  The boy got to keep the other $5.  Even five dollars a month to spend any way one chose was a sum which was beyond the dreams of avarice to many.  My sister Margaret was working at Newell’s Brass Factory at this time, for seven dollars a week.  Many of her co-workers were supporting themselves completely on this small sum.

The boys in the CCCs built roads, campsites and dams, planted trees and cut down trees.  In short, they did anything which would improve the forests or access to them.  Camp administration was under the province of the US Army, while the actual work done was under the province of the Forest Service.  Naturally when my brother came home on weekends and described the glories of life in the woods, I rapidly lost interest in school, and longed for the day when I could go myself, not the least of the attractions being the five dollars a month I would receive for my own.

 Thrashing a Bully

The winter passed uneventfully, except for one incident that caused me a great deal of trouble.  My sister lost her job at Newells, but found another as a domestic at Don Smith’s, whom I have already mentioned.  Since he was a railroad man, the Depression caused him little trouble.  My sister helped his wife around the house, as she had a fairly large family - Don Smith’s wife, not my sister.  It was also my bad luck that she had a son my age, Kenneth Smith.  Knowing how desperately my family needed the money my sister made, he availed himself of every opportunity, when a teacher’s back was turned, to give me a vicious punch anywhere it suited his fancy, knowing I would not dare to retaliate.  This went on for some months, until my older brother returned from camp, possibly sometime in March, and got a job on the W.P.A.  However, we still needed the extra money my sister made to get by adequately.

As it happened, I was still wearing castoff shoes, much too big for me.  I had stuffed the toes with paper to make a better fit.  One day, after school, I laid my school books on the wet snow outside and attempted to tighten the shoelaces so they would stay on while walking home.  As I bent over, Kenneth gave me a boot from behind and I was pitched face first into the wet snow.  I had finally reached the breaking point, and my rage knew no bounds. 

By this time Kenneth was out of sight, but I ran at full speed to the Lafayette Street Bridge.  Since he was still not in sight, I assumed he had gone home by way of Crescent Street, so I came to LaVigne’s Laundry on Main Street and hid.  I put my school books on a window sill, and also took off my shoes so they would not hinder me, and waited.  Sure enough, here came Kenneth.  He saw me about the same time I saw him, and I took after him in my stocking feet through the wet snow, and finally caught him on the steps of LaComb’s Grocery store, on the corner of Main and New York Avenue.  It would be impossible to describe the ecstasy I felt at the moment I caught him, and beat the hell out of this kid.  I returned every punch I had received in good measure.  In fact, at this late date, I can recall this as being one of the happiest moments of my life.

Naturally, as soon as I let him go, the word was not long in getting back to my family.  Apparently as well as making this kid slightly lumpy, I had also torn his jacket, and I caught Holy Hell from all directions.  I had to go see Mr. Smith and explain my actions.  It would seem that this boy had bragged to his father how many times he had beaten me up, and when I explained why I had allowed him to do so, he got another trimming from his father, and my sister retained her job.

 Can You Believe This One?

I would like to mention an incident that happened in the carpenter shop in school.  A boy by the name of Monroe, cut his finger off on a table saw, and was out for some weeks while it healed.  After he came back to school, the school authorities, anxious to prevent a repetition of this accident, asked him to set up the same situation so they could determine what had gone wrong.  Monroe, carried away by the limelight he was basking in, inadvertently turned on the saw and obliged them by sawing off another finger.